How higher ed can pave the way for the future of the cybersecurity workforce

Examples of the impact colleges and universities are having on the future of cybersecurity talent and how to build on this success.

As cyberattacks against businesses and government organizations reach new heights, an alarming statistic is making headlines. According to world-leading researcher Cybersecurity Ventures, the number of unfilled cybersecurity jobs grew by 350%, from one million positions in 2013 to 3.5 million in 2021.

Brandon Shopp

Right now, there’s a supply and demand issue. As technology evolves and threat actors become more advanced, companies are looking to add cybersecurity professionals to their teams. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics predicts that “information security analyst” will be among the fastest-growing occupations with a growth rate of 33% by 2030. Still, current hiring trends suggest that filling those positions won’t be easy. At the time of writing, U.S businesses employ nearly 1.1 million cybersecurity professionals with nearly 600,000 positions remaining unfilled.

Unfortunately, there’s no short-term solution to the problem. Adopting security automation tools can help ease the burden on already over-stretched cybersecurity teams, but they are certainly not a replacement for human-centered thinking.

More needs to be done in the higher ed space. Students and businesses are increasingly looking to schools and universities to expand cybersecurity programs and lead the way for the next generation of cybersecurity professionals. However, we also need to draw from a broader, more diverse talent pool to fill the gaps in the cyber workforce. This means ensuring cybersecurity curriculums are accessible to all students of all backgrounds and skillsets.

Fortunately, there’s light at the end of the tunnel—universities across the country are stepping up to meet the critical cyber workforce need.

Here are just a few examples of the impact colleges and universities are having on the future of cybersecurity talent and how to build on this success.

Approaching cyber as an interdisciplinary field

Cybersecurity isn’t just a technical issue; it’s interdisciplinary. As such, higher ed institutions should embrace cybersecurity programs that emphasize a combination of business and technology skills while offering industry-standard certification opportunities.

One such trailblazer is Georgia Tech. In addition to three cybersecurity degree programs, Georgia Tech opened its newest academic unit in late 2020 – the School of Cybersecurity and Privacy. With a mission to meet “a critical workforce need,” the school is the first of its kind and focuses on applied research collaborations with the cybersecurity industry. Notably, the curriculum focuses not only on technology but also on critical interdisciplinary areas such as cybersecurity law, business processes, and cultural considerations.

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Expanding these interdisciplinary skills to both graduates and undergraduates is the mission of Virginia’s Old Dominion University School of Cybersecurity. Driven by increased student interest in cybersecurity classes, the new school “embraces an interdisciplinary foundation to expand the pipeline for a diverse group of cybersecurity, resilience, and engineering professionals who will be responsible for safeguarding our critical infrastructure.” Since opening its doors in 2020, the school has enrolled over 800 students across various cybersecurity majors.

The Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Business is also making strides in an undergraduate cybersecurity specialization. In addition to learning how to protect valuable information assets for a firm, students will obtain a broad range of business skills in accounting, economics, finance, management, and marketing preparing them for entry-level cyber positions.

Expanding access and lowering costs by partnering with community colleges

A key reason many cyber positions go unfilled is that many of these jobs require very specific credentials. Yet, attaining these certifications can be costly, particularly for younger graduates.

Recognizing this problem, the Maryland Higher Education Commission has taken steps to expand access and lower costs to its groundbreaking professional cybersecurity bachelor’s degree—the Bachelor of Professional Studies in Applied Cybersecurity (BACS)—by partnering with community colleges in the state.

Students of the BACS program complete hands-on lab work and earn eight professional cybersecurity certifications granted by the SANS Technology Institute, demonstrating that they have the skills to excel in cyber careers. Maryland has also established a pathway that enables the students of Montgomery College, the state’s largest community college, to transfer directly into the BACS program. High school graduates can also be accepted directly on completing a foundation course.

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It’s a landmark program that removes the barriers faced by community graduates: industry demand for a bachelor’s degree while leveraging what community colleges already offer to provide a less-expensive, career-building option than many four-year programs. Plus, because BACS graduates bring validated SANS Institute accreditations to the workplace on day one, the cost of onboarding and training is reduced for employers.

A cyber workforce is at the core of America’s resilience

Committing resources and dedicating space to cybersecurity programs is a crucial differentiator for these institutions and sends a signal that they are serious about supporting the growth of cyber talent and preparing students for a diverse range of cyber disciplines.

Equally important is ensuring cybersecurity education is accessible to all students. To fill the gaps in the cyber workforce, we must draw from a broader, more diverse talent pool—this means ensuring cybersecurity curriculums are affordable and accessible to students of all backgrounds and skillsets.

We can’t afford to leave America vulnerable a moment longer. It’s contingent on higher education institutions to advance practical solutions to these serious issues—and quickly.

Brandon Shopp is the group vice president of product at SolarWinds. Shopp has spent more than 10 years with SolarWinds and has a proven success record in product delivery and revenue growth, with a wide variety of software product, business model, M&A and go-to-market strategies experience. 

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