(TNS)  — Ronald Wilson was the first student to register for Carroll Community College's newly offered cybersecurity associate's degree, after he saw the program advertised on a billboard.

At Thursday's grand opening to celebrate the college's new cybersecurity lab, Wilson told an audience of local business representatives, school officials, cybersecurity students and instructors what led him to the program and of his plans to pursue a career in intelligence.

"The most important thing you can have in this industry is the hands-on experience," said Wilson, who served in the U.S. Navy. "Getting that lab up and running for us is going to be the biggest advantage we have over all the other schools that are putting out cybersecurity graduates, so the fact that we are touching this equipment, we are hoping that we'll have the hands-on experience, not just working in an online virtual lab."

Carroll Community College has been slowly adding equipment to a lab designated to support nearly 100 students currently enrolled in the college's cybersecurity program, which began in the fall semester, but the finishing touches were completed last Monday when the first day of classes began for the spring semester, said Matt Day, the college's director of cyber technology.

Carroll is one of 14 community colleges in Maryland that benefited from a $15 million federal grant tied to improving cybersecurity education awarded to Montgomery Community College by the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration. Carroll received about $900,000 from the grant, using about $80,000 for the new cybersecurity lab.

State officials say there is a gap at the state, national and international levels between the growing demand for skilled cybersecurity professionals and workers qualified to fill those positions. Cybersecurity programs, like the one at Carroll Community, are aimed at meeting that need.

There are 20,000 unfilled cyber jobs in Maryland, according to Ken McCreedy, senior director of the office of cyber development and aerospace for the Maryland Department of Commerce.

"The workforce needs of that industry is just incredible right now," McCreedy said. "This initiative from the community colleges is just a great way to support that need."

Carroll provides course offerings in digital forensics, network penetration, scripting, wireless and embedded device exploitation, and technical writing and documentation, many of which prepare students for industry certifications, according to a news release from the school. The college offers a non-credit certification training program, non-credit certificates that offer preparation for industry certifications, continuing education courses for working cyber professionals and an associate's degree in cybersecurity.

The lab, located on the second floor of the college, contains six stationary networking racks, three mobile computer racks and eight different computer networks, Day said.

"Cybersecurity is about protecting a business' [Intellectual Property], so what we're trying to do here is replicate the typical equipment that a company would have," Day said standing in the classroom, outfitted with computers and computer servers that can accommodate up to 18 students at a time.

"So when a student comes here they'll actually use the equipment."

Equipment donated by the Carroll County Public Library and Carroll Hospital was used in the fall semester before the school was able to purchase equipment for its now outfitted lab, which cost the college about $100,000, Day said. Funding provided by the Carroll Community College Foundation paid for three mobile networking racks with routers and switches.

Dawn Grissom and Christine Brown, a project director and career navigator respectively for Harford Community College, attended a grand opening for the new lab Thursday morning to get ideas for their soon-to-open lab. Harford, like Carroll, is one of the 14 belonging to a consortium of colleges that received funding to establish cybersecurity programs or boost current program offerings.

"Everybody has done something different," said Grissom, who has traveled to other schools to get ideas for a soon-to-open lab at Harford Community College. "We like how open this lab is and how accessible it is."

Another student in the program, Westminster resident Valerie Estrada, called the program "amazing."

"I didn't think I would be as hands-on the first day," she said, adding that while some of her colleagues are ahead of her in terms of their technical knowledge, she is catching up.

Estrada earned an associate's degree from Carroll Community in 2013 but is now working two jobs waitressing and as a retail supervisor, hoping to land a job in computer networking or cybersecurity.

"Initially, I was an English major," she said. "Reading Tennyson was great, but there wasn't that job security."

©2016 the Carroll County Times (Westminster, Md.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.