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Could a New Pathways Program Ease Cyber Talent Troubles?

In North Carolina, a to-be-proposed pathways program offering education in exchange for a period of public service could build on the state’s existing efforts to train high school students and veterans.

Digital image of a lock overlayed on silhouettes of business people.
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North Carolina is considering a cybersecurity fellows pathway program that, if launched, would help tackle its cybersecurity talent gap by training participants and then starting them off in public-sector jobs.

Both public- and private-sector employers are struggling to fill cyber hiring needs, with CyberSeek estimating that the state’s talent pool can satiate only about 66 percent of employers’ demand for cybersecurity workers.

Chief Risk Officer Rob Main told GovTech that the state government faces steep cyber hiring competition, not only from local technology firms, but also from businesses in other industries that nonetheless have need for in-house cybersecurity talent and from out-of-state companies offering remote work.

Currently, North Carolina works to build the available talent pool and introduce different populations to cybersecurity via initiatives like the CyberStart America program for high school students — which it helps promote — and an apprenticeship program for disabled veterans.

These efforts have shown promise, and Main wants to expand the career pipeline further with a fellowship initiative he intends to present for legislative approval next year.

Main envisions a program that would recruit high school students, plus veterans — disabled or not — who are transitioning out of military service and their spouses, as well as other residents who wish to change careers. It would then provide them with training in cybersecurity, in exchange for participants bringing their new cyber talents to a North Carolinian public-sector organization upon completing their studies.

Participants would serve in the public sector “for a commensurate amount of time as the length of their educational program,” Main said. “This [program] is in its very early stages of modeling, and would involve an equal part educational component, as well as an internship or apprenticeship aspect.”

Recruitment efforts would focus on identifying candidates with an interest in public-sector work.

“What we expect out of the cyber fellows pathway is to not only present opportunities for folks entering into the pipeline, but also identify those with a ‘service before self’ mindset. And [to] really, really build that or encourage that and help grow that mindset into meaningful careers benefiting their state first,” he said.

The first step for getting such an initiative off the ground is to work with the North Carolina Community College and University of North Carolina systems to identify current curriculum that would be useful for the training. Next steps will involve identifying apprenticeship opportunities appropriate for those who’ve trained in cybersecurity but who lack experience, Main said.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper meets with CyberStart America participants at the Government Technology North Carolina Digital Government Summit in 2022.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper meets with CyberStart America participants at the Government Technology North Carolina Digital Government Summit in 2022.
Zachary Thorn

HIGH SCHOOL RECRUITMENT


North Carolina’s seen some encouragement from CyberStart America, a free program from the National Cyber Scholarship Foundation (NCSF) and SANS Institute. It’s designed to introduce high school students to cybersecurity and computer science through games, and well-performing participants can win college scholarships and other training. North Carolina has been promoting the offering through social media and messaging to high school science and math clubs.

Students can discover if the field matches their interest and talents, and those who participate tend to raise awareness among their peers that cybersecurity is a career option.

North Carolina saw 1,165 students take part in the program in 2021, of which 18 earned college scholarships and invitations to a multi-week cybersecurity training and certification course called the Cyber Foundations Academy, according to a state press release.

One of last year’s participants also contacted North Carolina’s IT department to ask how she could help the state, Main recalled.

“Through that, we brought not only her, but several of her fellow winners, into the agency to expose them to the various areas of cybersecurity that could serve as a career for them in the future,” he said.

Main said he’d like to expand outreach to youth and see cyber clubs or similar extracurricular programs introduced to high schools and middle schools in all 100 counties. He could not speak for the education department, but said he personally sees value in introducing cybersecurity into school curriculums as well.

“It’s a necessary skill to have, especially in this digital age,” Main said. “And with cybersecurity being everyone’s responsibility, it’s important to emphasize that at a very early stage in a student’s life.”

VETERANS, CAREER TRANSITIONS


The state has run a cybersecurity program for disabled veterans and their spouses since 2018, typically serving eight to 12 participants a year.

“It’s been highly successful in bringing veterans in with little to no cybersecurity experience, embedding them within a state agency for two years, and subsequently turning them around and finding them full-time jobs in cybersecurity fields in the state,” Main said.

A fellowship program could build on this further and reach others looking to find the next phase of their careers. Main hoped such an effort would find people in any walk of life — for example, retail workers or law enforcement officers nearing the end of their time on the force — who have a desire to help their state, and train them up.

“We’re looking for potential, not credential,” he said.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.