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Mercyhurst University Rolls Out New Cyberautism Program

Mercyhurst University will partner with one of the nation's Big Four accounting firms to pilot a first-of-its-kind program to prepare students with autism for high-paying cybersecurity jobs.

by Valerie Myers, Erie Times-News / December 7, 2020
Shutterstock/vs148

(TNS) — Mercyhurst University will partner with one of the nation's Big Four accounting firms to pilot a first-of-its-kind program to prepare students with autism for high-paying cybersecurity jobs.

Millions of jobs in cybersecurity are going unfilled, and intelligent people with autism who would be ideally suited to the work are unemployed, university officials said.

The new partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers is intended to address that disconnect by pairing the university's autism initiative and cybersecurity program to create a new Cyber-Autism Pilot Program in fall 2021.

PricewaterhouseCoopers is providing seed money for the program and will provide internships for its students.

The cyber-autism program will be a "game-changer,” Mercyhurst President  Michael Victor  said in a statement announcing the program.

"We are excited to offer a program that will address both the exploding demand for cybersecurity professionals and the ongoing need for meaningful career opportunities for our students on the (autism) spectrum," Victor said.

According to Cybersecurity Ventures, there are nearly 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity positions worldwide.  That has prompted some nations to recruit people with autism to fill vital jobs, said Caleb Pifer, Mercyhurst vice president for external relations. Pifer negotiated the partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Australia and Israel both turned into national strategies, for their departments of defense, the recruitment of those on the spectrum because they don't have enough people who are traditional that can fill their cybersecurity needs," Pifer said. "That's never been done in the United States. We are the first college or university to try anything like this."

Cybersecurity specialists help governments and businesses keep data secure.

"Any Fortune 500 company or other large institution — banks, insurance companies, even retailers, anybody that wants to protect information and data — needs a cybersecurity individual to help protect that data and teach its employees to protect it," said  Leanne Roberts , Mercyhurst's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Even colleges and universities are tempting targets for hackers, Roberts said.

"Look at all the data we collect about (people), and not just about the folks who work for us," Roberts said. "We bring them into the organization, screen them and collect financial data on them, Social Security numbers, where they live and perhaps health data. That's a very appealing target for folks with not-so-appealing ideas of what they want to do with that information."

Cybersecurity work pays well, especially due to the demand.

"Many entry-level cybersecurity positions are paying at or near six-figure salaries," Pifer said.

More: Mercyhurst training students on new front lines

And though the unemployment rate for adults with autism spectrum disorder approaches 85%, they might be especially suited to the work. Research further shows that pattern recognition, thinking outside the box, attention to detail, logical and methodical thinking, focus and integrity are among the strengths of people with autism.

Those same strengths are vital in cybersecurity, Pifer said.

2019: Mercyhurst to help expand cyber workforce for federal government

Mercyhurst plans to recruit 10 students on the autism spectrum to launch the Cyber-Autism Pilot Program in fall 2021. PricewaterhouseCoopers will pay for advertisements, travel, marketing, recruitment, staffing and other startup costs.

Students accepted into the program will be enrolled in the four-year major in cybersecurity within the Ridge College of Intelligence Studies and Applied Sciences, the oldest and largest school of intelligence studies in the United States.

2018: Mercyhurst dedicates Cyber Education Center

They will be held to the same academic standards as other students but will be provided with social, emotional and living supports and other services and mentorships provided by the nationally recognized Autism Initiative at Mercyhurst, A.I.M. Director  Brad McGarry  said.

Planning for the new cyber-autism program began after Mercyhurst was one of just two universities in the nation invited to participate in a summit on autism in the workplace hosted by Microsoft in May 2019, Pifer said.

"A dozen of the largest tech and financial services firms in the country that had developed hiring practices for those on the autism spectrum ... said publicly in their presentations that they were having challenges finding roles for those individuals once they got them through the door, once they hired them," Pifer said.

While the companies needed cybersecurity experts and there was basic knowledge about people with autism's aptitude for the work, the companies weren't seeing the link, a link that was further underscored by later research, he said.

"The idea for this program really came from that summit and seeing that ... people with autism can be a tremendous resource to these companies because of the way their minds work, and a plethora of other reasons," Pifer said.

(c)2020 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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