Extending its collaboration with the SANS Institute, the cooperative research and education organization that trains security professionals worldwide, Virginia will join six other states to host CyberStart this summer, a free online cybersecurity training exercise through which students 16 and older can earn thousands of dollars in scholarships.
The course, announced on Friday, July 14, and accompanying scholarships are provided and funded by SANS, which this spring partnered with Virginia to host two VetSuccess Immersion Academies, an expansion of its Cyber Vets Initiative aimed at retraining veterans to take cyber and tech jobs.
Technically some of the students CyberStart targets in its qualifying round, now through July 28, and in the main course, from Aug. 1-28, could be veterans themselves; there’s no age limit imposed. The chief requirement to join is to be a student age 16 or older by Sept. 1, and to have a computer and Internet access.
But unlike the Cyber Vets Initiative, CyberStart is aimed not just at younger students, but also at teens and young adults who may not yet know what type of career they will pursue — or even have identified an interest in technology or cybersecurity.
"Some people get frustrated and want to quit. Some people get frustrated and want to push through and find the answer. It separates those people," SANS Director of Research Alan Paller told Government Technology, emphasizing that the course's online availability broadens its reach to people in rural areas and smaller cities who may not previously have been able to get training.
The goal is identifying and educating an untapped segment of Virginia’s population and talent pool through an aptitude test that is a first for the state — and, likely, the first endeavor of its kind in the nation, its Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson told Government Technology.
“The fact that we are using this as a widely applied tool is rather unique. The fact that it is led by a state, rather than a private company — this is what states should be doing. We should be cultivating a workforce,” Jackson told GT.
Like other states, Virginia badly needs to fill technology jobs. From November to February, the number of vacant cyber-related positions in the state more than doubled from 17,000 to 36,000 — and has thus far failed to decrease, she said.
Empty positions with average starting salaries of around $88,000 exist in public and private sectors and hurt both, Jackson said, pointing out that the state finds it difficult to recruit and retain technology companies because they, in turn, are unable to find qualified workers.
“We’ve had to do scholarship for service programs to try to draw people who want to come into public service because we simply don’t have the monetary ability to pay people like the private sector does,” Jackson said. “Whether these people end up coming into the private sector or they come into the public sector, either way, the commonwealth benefits.”
It’s a problem SANS officials also highlighted in a statement on their website.
“The only way to solve this problem is to introduce, develop and help young people, in high school and college, pursue a career in this sector,” officials wrote, noting that CyberStart offers challenges accessible to people without pre-existing knowledge or skill levels.
In a statement, Paller said SANS has observed that people who master CyberStart perform better in advanced cybersecurity courses, and the institute hopes to help “identify the next generation of talented people who will excel in this critical field.”
“We don’t think the U.S. can meet the requirements of cybersecurity without a bigger pipeline of talented people, so we’re experimenting to try to find that,” Paller told Government Technology.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe called the SANS partnership “exciting” in a statement and said growing the state’s cyberworkforce is “foundational to maintaining our position as a national leader in cybersecurity.”
“This is a great opportunity for us to expand our talent pipeline by engaging young people interested in learning more about cybersecurity and directing them to the appropriate training and career coaching,” McAuliffe said.
In announcing the collaboration in her state, Nevada Congresswoman Jacky Rosen encouraged high school and college students to try out; while in Delaware, Gov. John Carney linked it closely to a successful future for his state.
“Delaware’s future is an innovation economy where technology takes center stage, and our state needs a pipeline of talented cybersecurity professionals,” Carney said in a statement.
Applicants have through July 28 to qualify for the full-scale aptitude test, a version of which has been administered by SANS in the United Arab Emirates. The test, which is also online, is available from Aug. 1-28 in a self-paced format.
Both qualifying round and coursework contain coding segments, but Jackson said the overall test is “as much about the thought process and the problem-solving and the analytical abilities as it is about the hard coding.”
Once the course finishes on Aug. 28, the seven states — Virginia, Michigan, Rhode Island, Delaware, Iowa, Nevada and Hawaii — will share 100 $1,500 scholarships for cybereducation.
An exact number hasn’t yet been established, Jackson said, but top winners throughout the states will divide an additional $500,000 in scholarships for college and graduate-level training and preparation for industry certifications.
Perhaps nearly as exciting for state officials may be learning the identities of top finishers and watching interest rise around them.
“Once these people finish, we’re very curious to see how their employability goes. If somebody takes the aptitude test now that we’ve announced this, are we going to get a group of companies that says, ‘Let me see all those grads?' Or, ‘Let me see those people and those scores because I may want to hire them?'” Jackson said.
Either way, in a little more than six weeks, states will know their winners.
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.