A series of high-profile cyber attacks over the past year has prompted Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to invite an elite group of techies to compete next weekend in a Cyber Aces State Championship aimed at putting the best among them into desperately needed cybersecurity jobs.

“The Cyber Aces program will help us create a pipeline of talent so we can build on our successes and lead the nation in the evolving innovation industry,” Patrick said.

Sixty-seven participants culled from a pool of more than 1,000 who faced off in an online competition last fall will take part on May 3 at UMass Boston in a high-stakes digital defense simulation called NetWars, the same hands-on simulation of real-world scenarios used by the U.S. military to train officers in network warfare.

“The 21st century is confronting us with online threats that are difficult and dangerous,” said L. Scott Rice, the adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard. “The world is increasingly interconnected as our commerce, national defense and education system are dependent on cyber security.”

Information technology is the second-fastest growing field in the nation, according to a Cisco analysis, which projected the demand for elite cyber technicians at 10,000, and the need for operators and administrators at 55,000 nationwide.

Yet there is a shortage of qualified candidates to fill those positions — a shortage that has become critical in the wake of cyber attacks on media outlets, Target, Neiman Marcus and, most recently, Children’s Hospital.

“Similar to our shortage of fighter pilots at the start of World War II, now we have a critical shortage of skilled cyber defenders,” said Alan Paller, founder of Cyber Aces, a not-for-profit that trains people with a high aptitude for achievement in information technology so that they can contribute to the security of the U.S. and its enterprises.

“Like the pilot-training programs of that era, Cyber Aces initiatives like this state championship are how we’ll create the specialists we need,” Paller said. “You can’t buy software and hardware that are foolproof. The only effective defense is people with great technical skills. That’s who we’re looking for.”

Next weekend’s event will challenge the most talented and ambitious contenders from local high schools, community colleges and universities, as well as job seekers, veterans and members of the armed forces.

“They’ll be competing against the computer to find the malicious code, to find flaws, holes, things that are wrong with it,” he said.

Winners will be introduced at a career fair in June to government agencies, banks and tech, security and aerospace companies seeking cyber-security specialists.

“The field is growing, but it still requires people to demonstrate their skills,” said Mike Micale, a 44-year-old technical trainer from Malden who was laid off last June and will be competing next weekend. “Companies need people who are going to be effective right away, and it’s hard to show that you can do that without a competition like this.”

©2014 the Boston Herald