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Cybersecurity Programs Gain Popularity With Veterans

Cybersecurity programs such as the online one at Western Governors University have seen growing interest from military personnel looking for flexible IT training, either for their current roles or after their service.

Chief Information Technician Eric Jackson working on a laptop.
Chief Information Technician Eric Jackson, assigned to the Navy Cyber Competition Team, solves a capture-the-flag challenge.
Credit: Petty Officer 2nd Class William Sykes
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for IT security professionals is expected to grow 33 percent by 2030 amid an increase in cyber attacks against public- and private-sector organizations. As the U.S. military continues to expand its IT ranks, many employers have stepped up efforts to recruit military talent into their IT teams to better secure networks. As a result, online cybersecurity courses such as those at Western Governors University (WGU) have witnessed growing interest among active-duty military students who are either looking to advance their training for military work or to break into civilian IT careers, according to Rick Benbow, a regional vice president at WGU.

Benbow said military students often have little to no time for traditional four-year university degree programs or other in-person training, which brings them to WGU’s Online Cybersecurity and Information Assurance degree program.

“Students are looking for a quicker return on their higher-education investments,” he said, adding that students can obtain a bachelor’s degree in a fraction of the usual time due to WGU’s “competency-based” education model.

According to WGU’s website, 70 percent of students in WGU’s online cybersecurity program complete it within less than two years.

“The competency-based model essentially allows students to advance once they can demonstrate mastery of the skills and competencies associated with the course,” Benbow said. “Whether it’s one day, two weeks, three weeks, a month or four months in, students have the ability to ‘raise their hand’ and take an assessment and advance to the next course.”

There are currently over 600,000 unfilled cybersecurity positions across industries in the U.S., with about 560,000 being in the private sector, according to data from CyberSeek.

Eric Jackson, a 37-year-old chief information technician in the U.S. Navy, said he’s hoping to use the skills he’s gained at WGU for a civilian cybersecurity career after his upcoming retirement from the Navy, where he’s spent much of his time deployed overseas managing networks.

“One of the things I did in my career was I managed a cloud-based wireless network, the first of its kind over satellite, over my deployment,” he said. “I was able to apply the things I learned in WGU’s [cloud professional] courses directly to my setting, and it enabled me to take that project by the horns.”

Jackson said the flexibility of the program has been essential to learning new skills while in active duty.

“I moved at my own pace, and it’s been wonderful because it isn’t a defined timeline where you have to check in every single week on a Tuesday or month doing something. I’m able to fly through the courses where I know the skills,” he said. “The flexibility is huge, because I can’t just dedicate the time every single week to doing college coursework. I actually have a job I need to do, as well.”

Benbow said the program was designed with input from cyber experts and IT employers to meet Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency guidelines so students are trained for ever-changing threats to networks.

“As we move to more of a digital format across industries, information and protecting that information becomes paramount in daily operations … It has only raised the level of importance of cybersecurity and highlighted the need for us as a country to develop the talent in this space,” he said, reiterating the growing demand for fast IT training programs across the country.

Jackson said his experience in the military showed him the need for continual professional development when it comes to cybersecurity expertise. He said cyber threats are “changing every day” as technology advances.

“It’s a challenge to keep up with new technologies, and you have to maintain your education as you go through work in cybersecurity,” he said. “There’s always something new that’s created or leveraged to create a vulnerability that can be taken advantage of … Even 10 years ago, we didn’t have to worry as much about wireless signals on a Navy ship.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.