Back to School

How OPM hopes to cultivate cyber talent

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Feds are becoming eligible for retirement in waves, and cybersecurity skills are in desperately short supply. Importing talent is one solution, but another is developing the skills of the people who already work for the government.

“Over the next five years, four in 10 federal employees will be eligible for retirement,” said Sydney Smith-Heimbrock, chief learning officer at the Office of Personnel Management. “OPM has identified cybersecurity as the highest-risk skills gap.”

To help remedy that growing gap, OPM has pursued partnerships with higher education institutions, first with University of Maryland University College and now with Champlain College via a truED Alliance.

“Champlain College’s nationally ranked, online education programs closely align with OPM’s need to offer high-quality, affordable education opportunities for employees that focus on mission-critical areas,” Smith-Heimbrock said. “This includes its No. 1-ranked cybersecurity higher education program by SC Magazine (which also includes its digital forensics program), as well as its health care management, human resources management and appreciative inquiry-based MBA programs.”

The truED partnership allows feds to take online courses from the Burlington, Vt., college at substantially reduced rates — $10,000 for a bachelor’s degree and $11,000 for a master’s degree, according to the college.

“It’s definitely less than I paid for my degree,” said Mika Nash, academic dean in Champlain College’s Division of Continuing Professional Studies.

Nash said roughly 90 federal students have enrolled in the inaugural summer for the government’s truED alliance, with some 400 signed up for fall classes and hundreds more in the pipeline. OPM declined to provide its own enrollment figures.

“If you have someone in your agency who has demonstrated savvy in your workforce, either at keeping the bad guys out or at figuring out how they got in, that’s the person you want to invest in,” Nash said.

At the beginning, cybersecurity was the 10th most popular program offered through truED, but it has since rocketed up to fourth, she added.

The most popular programs pertain to business, but Nash said students do not just gain knowledge that will help them advance their own careers. They also learn soft skills that will benefit the federal workforce.

As part of its cybersecurity curriculum, the college offers a digital forensics degree to teach students how to dust for cyber fingerprints after breaches.

“Ideally, you should put a lot of resources on the front end and minimize breaches,” said Ric Messier, a cybersecurity program director at the college. However, he acknowledged the seeming inevitability of breaches and the importance of being able to determine the scope and severity of one after it has happened.

Messier touted Champlain College’s “boots-on-the-ground approach to security.” He SAID The college puts students through real-world drills rather than sticking to academic abstraction, and copious lab work deals with intrusion detection, emerging threats and more.

Nash said she expects the numbers of feds using truED to grow, while Smith-Heimbrock stressed the program’s value in developing the talents of the existing federal workforce.
“Lifelong learning is a staple of today’s federal workforce,” she said. “Champlain College’s programs place an emphasis on developing both hard skills as well as soft skills, like critical thinking and problem solving, that are equally important to future agency leaders and mission success.”

About the Author

Zach Noble is a staff writer covering digital citizen services, workforce issues and a range of civilian federal agencies.

Before joining FCW in 2015, Noble served as assistant editor at the viral news site TheBlaze, where he wrote a mix of business, political and breaking news stories and managed weekend news coverage. He has also written for online and print publications including The Washington Free Beacon, The Santa Barbara News-Press, The Federalist and Washington Technology.

Noble is a graduate of Saint Vincent College, where he studied English, economics and mathematics.

Click here for previous articles by Noble, or connect with him on Twitter: @thezachnoble.


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