How universities are helping to build a 500,000-person cybersecurity workforce

With online attacks on the rise, institutions like CSU San Bernardino are preparing students to stop hackers.

A little more than a year ago, California State University at San Bernardino was selected by the National Security Agency to be the home of the Community National Center for Cybersecurity Education.

Part of its mission is to help train up the next wave of cybersecurity workers as quickly as possible. With a shortage of 500,000 professionals in the U.S. and continual threats from foreign actors and hackers, the task is daunting.

But Tony Coulson, Director of the Center and professor at CSUSB, says the nation’s colleges and universities are making progress. He and the Center are working in conjunction with more than 335 higher education institutions to help build that workforce.

“In the last six years, we’ve taken the number from about 15,000 students to about 100,000 students that are in cyber,” he says. “We’re trying to cut down the amount of time it takes to produce a cyber expert. We just received a grant award to work on apprenticeship in an earn-while-you-learn experience so that when you graduate, you’re not only a student that has a diploma but you’re a student with three years’ worth of work experience.”

He says one of the challenges in looking to the future is trying to predict the unpredictable. “In academia, when we’re trying to produce a workforce, we’re trying to teach students for jobs that might not even exist yet five years from now,” he says. “There’s new technologies. There’s the world of today, which I think we’ve got down, but it’s also about what the world of tomorrow is going to look like so that when these students graduate, they’re ready for it.”

That world is facing an ever-increasing number of cyber threats, including ransomware attacks on K-12 schools and higher education institutions as hackers seek more than just a payout. Ransomware attacks alone are up 600% since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

“We all said there’s a crisis. And then now we’re sitting in it. It’s even the size and scope we said it would be,” Coulson says. “We are seeing attacks of greater sophistication than we’ve ever seen before. Universities in general have a broad research portfolio. That is the golden item that a lot of people want. Research is about inventing tomorrow. If you could steal tomorrow, you’ve got an advantage.”

Building a base of experts

CSU San Bernardino is working to solve potential crises on several levels. The first is helping to lead the cohorts of Center of Academic Excellence-C Communities of Practice with other institutions.

“We work closely with the government on that project,” Coulson says. “We’re saying, what are competency standards? What are the things we need? What does AI look like? How do we get data analytics into the community colleges so that they are producing the workforce that we need?”

The second is helping develop new innovations and research that can help prevent those crimes. And the third is training up students in the classroom, where CSUSB is providing a deeply enriching curriculum, along with experiential learning. It has hosted a number of events and done several National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) challenges and other Capture the Flag exercises to help prepare a group of young experts that is growing across myriad industries.

“Cybersecurity when I got into the field, 20 years ago was mostly computer science and engineering, but now cybersecurity is law, policy and criminal justice. There are so many different areas that cybersecurity touches,” Coulson says. “We have deployed a national cybersecurity range training and assessment, where higher ed students from around the country can work in simulated job roles. So if they think they want to be a cyber ransomware expert, there’s a challenge they can take that has a realistic environment where you have to fight off the ransomware.”

CSUSB is also doing quite a bit of outreach, helping to get veterans into cybersecurity through its community college program while assisting schools and other organizations in protecting their information and online assets.

“Anybody who can walk and talk and do some cyber, we want you because you’re not going to solve a 500,000-person deficit that is projected, and be able to survive as the leading economy in the world,” Coulson says. “We’re doing a lot with cyber hygiene. We’re trying to get people to understand you have to be cyber aware and protect your personal information. Over the last few years, we have done about 20,000 hours in outreach trying to educate the community.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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