Future cybersecurity workforce heads to summer camp

Colleges in five states are hosting more than 200 students in cyber boot camps this summer as part of a program to relieve a critical shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals.

This is the second year of camps organized by the U.S. Cyber Challenge, a government and industry effort launched in 2009 to address cybersecurity workforce needs through a collection of long-term programs.

“We are looking for at least 10,000 of the most highly skilled, capable people in the nation to become the hunter-warriors of the cyber world,” said former fed Karen Evans, the challenge's national director.

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The talent hunt is being conducted on a number of fronts, beginning with identifying promising students at the elementary school level and continuing through encouraging the creation of degree programs at universities and career paths in government. The boot camp program is a near-term effort primarily for college students to help expand the current manpower pool and encourage development of university degree programs for students who are coming up from high schools.

This year’s boot camp program, which has slots for 260 students at five schools, is a significant expansion from last year’s pilot program, which included 55 students at three schools. But “we still have a long way to go to get to 10,000,” said Evans, former administrator of e-government and IT at the Office of Management and Budget.

Creating new educational programs and raising awareness of educational and career opportunities among students and parents will be a long-term job, she added. “In the meantime, cyber crime is really growing. Demand isn’t going down.”

The U.S. Cyber Challenge grew out of the Securing Cyberspace for the 44th Presidency report spearheaded by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The report states that improving professional training and workforce development is an essential component of improving cybersecurity.

In 2009, citing what some experts called a radical shortage of skilled cybersecurity professionals, a government/industry coalition that included CSIS, the Defense Department's Cyber Crime Center, the Air Force Association, the SANS Institute and a number of universities and aerospace companies, announced the U.S. Cyber Challenge program to:

  • Identify students with the proper skills and interests.
  • Establish cyber boot camps to foster those interests.
  • Sponsor national competitions to increase awareness.
  • Establish scholarship programs.
  • Provide internships and jobs.

The need for accelerating workforce development has become even more obvious in the past two years, with a growing number of high-profile breaches targeting government and government contractor IT systems. DOD has created a U.S. Cyber Command to defend against such attacks and conduct offensive operations in the new cyber domain. But civilian, military and private-sector infrastructure operators are all competing for the same limited pool of professionals.

“It’s not really a technology issue, it’s a people issue,” Evans said of the apparent inability to protect critical IT systems.

The boot camps were launched last year with three state programs at California State Polytechnic University, the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, and Wilmington University in Dover, Del.

This year’s program includes two state camps, at California State Polytechnic University and Delaware Technical and Community College in Dover, and two regional camps at the University of Missouri at Columbia and the J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va. A camp for state high school students is also being held in Maryland at the Community College of Baltimore County.

The one-week camps are invitation-only, and students are chosen based on scores from the Cyber Quests online competition offered by the U.S. Cyber Challenge in April and the results of other competitions, including Cyber Foundations, CyberPatriot, NetWars and the DOD Cyber Crime Center’s Digital Forensics Challenge.

Participating students receive training from college faculty and IT professionals in a range of areas, including penetration testing, reverse engineering, forensics and ethical behavior. There is also a job fair and a one-day “capture the flag” competition with a $1,000 scholarship for winning team members in each camp, provided by (ISC)2.

The program is still in its development phase so it is too early to assess results, although the federal CIO Council and the Homeland Security Department are developing an assessment framework, Evans said. “We’re on the input stage,” she added.

She said the efforts have been successful in identifying students outside the traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula who have the appropriate interests and skills. The challenge now is to maintain those interests and expand the workforce by opening career paths for students outside the young white male demographic that has traditionally dominated cybersecurity.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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