Virginia Expands Cybersecurity Training for Veterans in Bid to Fill Vacant Positions Statewide

Two new VetSuccess Immersion Academies from the SANS Institute will augment the Cyber Vets Virginia initiative announced in November.

by / February 23, 2017

Roughly three months after it began, Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Cyber Vets Virginia initiative to retrain veterans to work in the tech sector is expanding with the addition of two academies this spring, said state officials who hope the program will grow even further.

Announced on Veterans Day 2016, the Virginia governor’s plan focuses on filling vacant cyber and tech jobs. As recently as November, the state was believed to have 17,000 vacant cyber-related positions. But Karen Jackson, the state’s secretary of technology, said the number of empty posts has now more than doubled to 36,000.

“Obviously, that’s a real eye opener," Jackson told Government Technology. "The world is your oyster right now if you happen to be a cyberprofessional. Part of that, we think, is a heightened awareness on the part of non-tech companies that they need cyberworkers — the hospitals, the manufacturing companies moving into the IT sector.”

According to a 2016 Business-Higher Education Forum Report on Cybersecurity Jobs in Virginia and the DMV prepared by Burning Glass Technologies, there were 348,975 postings for cybersecurity jobs nationwide from Oct. 1, 2016, through May 31, 2016.

During this period, Virginia had the second highest posting count in the nation at 36,342 jobs, trailing only California.

Currently, demand is so high that the state has zero unemployment in cyber-related jobs, Jackson said, adding, “The problem is trying to push enough people into the pipeline to chink away at some of those openings.”

Maxwell Shuftan, director of SANS CyberTalent Solutions, which includes overseeing the academies, attributed the boom to breaches at major companies like Target and Home Depot, and to the rise of the Internet of Things.

“When you see a Fortune 500 company experiencing that kind of breach, it sort of gets the attention of everybody,” Shuftan said.

Debbie Hughes, the Business-Higher Education Forum's vice president of higher education and workforce, also credited “hypergrowth in the area of companies hiring for positions, all the investment that has been made, all the publicity around cyber.”

And despite warnings that degrees are required and no entry-level cyberjobs exist, she said veterans could be uniquely qualified to find work after training. “With the veterans, it’s awesome — you can take this pool of folks who already have this work experience and then supplement them in and get them into the jobs that are hardest to fill,” Hughes said.

On March 20 and again on April 24, veterans will have their chance. Those are the start dates for the SANS Institute’s two new entirely scholarship-based VetSuccess Immersion Academies.

Following a screening process to assess skills and aptitude, vets will have the chance to take as many as three SANS courses on topics including security essentials, hacker tools, incident handling, intrusion detection and network penetration testing. After finishing each, participants will take exams for Global Information Assurance Certification before beginning the next course — and, should they not pass, they’ll get a second try.

Established in 1989 as a cooperative research and education organization, SANS’ programs now reach more than 165,000 security professionals worldwide. In a statement made Jan. 30 when the academies were announced, Virginia Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs John Harvey Jr. called the state’s partnership with SANS a big win and said it will boost opportunities for veterans and service members.

Enrollment for SANS’ first academy in McLean, Va., which will last four to five months, drew 82 applicants when organizers expected only 40 to 50. Enrollment for the second academy in Virginia Beach is open through March 17, and so far 35 people have applied for about the same number of spots.

Joseph Robbins, a 2015 academy graduate who’s working as a cybersecurity analyst for ISHPI Technologies, praised the academy’s training for getting him the job, in a statement. “Without the academy, I’d have finished my degree and would still be looking for a job,” Robbins said.

Moved by the overwhelming response from applicants, Shuftan said the institute may add seats to the first academy, and it's contemplating holding a third academy this fall.

“We know from a large perspective we’re making a small dent in a number that’s hundreds of thousands [of empty positions] throughout the year,” Shuftan said. “Getting 100 people through in a year and placed isn’t going to change that, but it’s still something that we think is impactful," Shuftan said, referencing a rough number of total academy graduates per year.

After completion, Jackson said, veterans should find it increasingly easy to either enter the workforce or continue their education to a graduate or postgraduate degree. “As long as they work in Virginia,” she said jokingly. “We want them to stay here.”

This highlights a longstanding issue for public agencies that find it difficult to hire and keep talent because they typically don’t pay as much as the private sector. In Virginia’s case, Jackson said the state has set up a scholarship program, covering veterans’ education costs on a one-to-one ratio if they go to work for the state — paying one year of tuition in exchange for one year of service.

But Hughes suggested compensation isn’t the only reason employees may stay in the public sector.

“People who are going into the public sector, especially in cybersecurity, have already made a decision that it’s not about the money. It’s about driving the mission and making folks feel connected to the work, feel important, and making them feel like they’re contributing to something important,” she said.

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.