Minnesota government and education officials have high hopes for the MN Cyber Range, a new cybersecurity training program through the Metropolitan State University that’s the first of its kind in the state.

Cyber-ranges, which typically offer certified cybersecurity training that’s more comprehensive and real-time than comparable offerings from vocational schools or universities, are not new. The Michigan Cyber Range, a virtual training environment offered by Merit Network, opened in 2012. Another well-known entrant, the Arizona Cyber Warfare Range, debuted last fall in Phoenix through a partnership between Grand Canyon University and the Arizona Cyber Threat Response Alliance (ACTRA).

But nationwide, well-paying jobs in cybersecurity continue to go unfilled, with estimates of the gap varying from 100,000 to 350,000 unstaffed positions. A so-called image problem may be partly to blame. P.K. Agarwal, regional dean at Northeastern University’s Silicon Valley campuses, which offer cybersecurity training, told the San Diego Union-Tribune: “Computer science is sexy. Cyber isn’t.” Kyle Swanson, dean, College of Sciences at MSU and an executive sponsor of the Cyber Range, said it’s estimated there are around 5,000 open cybersecurity jobs in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

“We want to really attend to all parts of the ecosystem, not only getting students entry-level jobs, but again, working with employers to provide opportunities for their workers to advance within their careers,” said Swanson. “This is something that’s traditionally been a challenge.”

After completing about 40 hours of training per course, MN Cyber Range grads can earn certifications from the industry group CompTIA; they can also receive Certified Information Security Services Professional (CISSP) certification from the Information Sharing & Analysis Center (ISAC), and others. A nine-person pilot class was successful, Swanson said, and “commercial” classes should open around late August.

Cyber Range classes are founded on the Cyberbit training and simulation platform from partner Elbit Systems Ltd., the Israel-based defense electronics contractor perhaps best-known for its panoramic heads-up display for the F-35 fighter jet. The courses are billed as a “flight simulator for cyberattacks.”

The Cyber Range is part of the MN Cyber Institute, an “umbrella structure” designed to support cybersecurity education statewide. It’s funded through National Science Foundation and National Security Agency grants. State officials are hopeful it will help existing employees hone their skills beyond just blue team-red team scenarios — and lead to some new hires. State Chief Information Security Officer Aaron Call said the training enrollees will receive at MSU should stand in contrast to other offerings.

“Where these are distinct from traditional vocational training is that they’re immersive and realistic,” said Call. “You’re leveraging a virtualized network and set of systems to simulate an actual business and attacks, as opposed to each individual system process in isolation, the way a lot of traditional training does. This pulls it together in a much more realistic way.”

In remarks at the Range’s May opening, MSU President Virginia Arthur called the program the university’s “most disruptive solution to a multi-sector human capital log jam.”

Scott Evers, VP at Elbit Systems, said at the event that officials must “exponentially disrupt higher education” to lead “an ‘innovation ecosystem.’”

Minnesota IT Commissioner and state CIO Johanna Clyborne explained that MSU hopes to forge partnerships through lower education that could do just that. “Looking at the long-term needs — which really start all the way back (in) preschool and kindergarten — how are we setting up our future generations to be comfortable in the science, technology, education and math (STEM) field,” she said. “We’re so focused on, ‘how do we fill the vacancies now?’ that we’re not looking at the long-range strategic plan on how to keep that pipeline open so that we don’t continue to run into this problem,” she said.

MNIT tends “to hover” around five vacancies for security staff in the state’s cybersecurity program, Call said, describing that as “reflective of what the industry is seeing as well.”

“We believe that for an organization of our size, complexity and gravity, that cybersecurity is underfunded. The program is already running lean, and then having positions that are held open for an extended period of time only exacerbates the impact of that,” he said.

Swanson said offerings through the Cyber Range and the Institute are designed to bridge the gap between unfilled positions and the labor market with qualified trainees.

“Part of it is starting to communicate between traditional academic programs and these professional certifications and making sure the communication back and forth between those is transparent so that when an employer hires someone from Metropolitan State who has a given selection of course, they know exactly what they’re getting,” he said.