Close the Cybersecurity Workforce Gap with Apprenticeships, Internships, and Other Alternative Pathways

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We’ve all heard by now that the cyber workforce gap has reached a level of desperation that puts all of us, and our country, at risk. It’s time we start moving the conversation away from the problem and towards innovative solutions.

To truly narrow this cyber workforce gap, it’s crucial to solicit the collaboration and support of the “golden trifecta” – academia, commercial industries, and government. And while educating and training high school and university students is important, this should not be our only focus; re-skilling and upskilling populations such as Veterans, minorities, career changers, women, persons with disabilities and learning differences, and others, have tremendous potential to both shrink the gap and contribute much needed diversity to the cyber workforce.

Recognizing National Cybersecurity Career Awareness Week (Nov. 12-17), we thought it prudent to share three tools that can help prepare the next generation of cybersecurity professionals to address ever-evolving threats and the aforementioned challenges.

Apprenticeships

Compared to other professions, cybersecurity apprenticeship programs are scarce.  Yet, there is hardly a better way for an organization to fill its pipeline with well-qualified cybersecurity talent than by building an apprenticeship model into existing recruiting strategies. By integrating an “earn while they learn” model, employers can leverage a unique opportunity to grow their own talented pool of cyber professionals who have the highly desired combination of hands-on skills and foundational, academic knowledge.

“This is absolutely fundamental, and a key plan in meeting the workforce needs. Our solution to the gap will be about skills and technical ability,” says Eric Iversen, VP of Learning & Communications, Start Engineering. “And the most successful of apprenticeship programs offer student benefits (e.g., real-world job skills, active income, mentorship, industry-recognized credentials, an inside track to full-time employment, etc.) and employer benefits (i.e., developed talent that matches specific needs and skill sets, reduced hiring costs and a high return on investment, low turnover rates and employee retention, etc.)”

These types of opportunities are especially beneficial for recruiting individuals who may be switching careers, may not have advanced degrees, or are looking to re-enter the field. The U.S. Department of Labor, provides guidance on starting apprenticeship programs.

Internships

The hardest part of being a young professional is finding that first career opportunity. However, that is a particular challenge for aspiring cyber professionals when just about every job posting they find asks for some level of relevant, industry experience. The problem is, not many organizations are willing to give it! For organizations looking to bring fresh ideas, perspectives and talent through the door, internship partnerships with local academic institutions can be a great workforce development tool. Many community colleges, technical colleges, and universities have well-oiled practices of connecting their students with local companies. In fact, it’s not uncommon for most students, both undergraduate and graduate, to be required to complete an internship in their field of study before graduation. Much like a successful apprenticeship program, a strategic internship program enables a situation where everyone involved, wins.

Alternative Pathways

While there are many models to be considered here, the following two are typically the most accessible and well-received for both students and employers.

  • “Stackable” Courses, Credits & Certificates: Simply put, “stackable” learning opportunities allow students to quickly build their knowledgebase and achieve industry-relevant experience that leads directly to employment. The idea here is two-fold.

a). High school students can enroll in college-level coursework and/or earn cybersecurity-focused certificates while completing their high school career.

b). College-level students can leave higher education for a job, and later return with credits that count toward the next certificate or degree.

This approach continues to gain traction as high school counselors and college administrators respond to the rapidly evolving nature of our economy.

  • Cyber Competitions & Hackathons: There is hardly a better vehicle for the practical application of one’s skillset than participating in a cyber competition or hackathon. These types of opportunities are becoming more and more common, and many times, cyber enthusiasts of all proficiency levels view cyber competitions and hackathons as the “latest and greatest” in extra-curricular activities. While numerous studies can be cited to support the significant traction cyber competitions and hackathons have gained, the fact is they’re changing the landscape in important ways. For example, cyber competitions and hackathons are often cited as positively impacting one’s exposure to the industry. Cyber competitions:
    • Support exposure to new and emerging technologies
    • Enable networking opportunities with like-minded folks
    • Offer environments for learners to demonstrate their abilities
    • Provide opportunity for new talent recruitment

Circadence is proud to lend its platform Project Ares® for many local and national cyber competitions including the cyberBUFFS, SoCal Cyber Cup, and Paranoia Challenge so students can engage in healthy competition and skill-building among peers. For more information on cyber competitions and hackathons, check out the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot, Carnegie Mellon’s picoCTF, Major League Hacking, and the National Cyber League.

Closing the cyber workforce gap will take diversification in all sense of the word.

  • Diversity from supporting organizations, institutions, and companies.
  • Diversity in learning approaches and experiences.
  • Diversity in learners themselves.

Enterprise, government and academic institutions must pursue innovative and engaging ways new to attract underrepresented professionals to apprenticeships, internships and alternative pathways to add diversity to the cybersecurity workforce. And based on the current state of our cyber workforce, this suggestion is not just important, it is essential.

Many desired outcomes become a reality when we emphasize these efforts. It’s the unique perspectives, the inspired teamwork, the widened pool of well-qualified talent, the creativity and the “all-hands-on-desk” (see what we did there?) mentality that will help strengthen the cybersecurity industry not just for students, but for all agencies and businesses. Let’s embrace all of it!