Help Wanted: Cybersecurity Workforce of Future Starts with Students Today

Today’s critical infrastructure systems from farm fields planted with digital sensors that track soil moisture and nutrient levels to electric power grids equipped to instantly respond to digital signals about shifts in supply and demand are increasingly vulnerable to attacks that could cripple civil society, according to cybersecurity experts.

Today, there are nearly 2 million U.S. job openings in the field of cybersecurity, studies indicate.

Cybersecurity professionals are trained to harden digital systems and protect them from unauthorized access. The shortfall of cybersecurity professionals is expected to double by 2025 as internet of things, or IoT, technologies proliferate across critical infrastructure, homes and businesses.

“More things are being cyber enabled and that creates this exponential opportunity and demand for people with cybersecurity expertise to secure those systems,” said Jerry Cochran, the chief information security officer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, Washington. Cochran helps lead a lab-wide effort to grow the cybersecurity workforce of the future.

The initiative centers on outreach in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, educational opportunities for high school and college students in the communities surrounding PNNL. The goal is to increase the cyber talent pool and raise the profile of cybersecurity as “a really fun, cool and lucrative STEM career,” Cochran added.

Homegrown recruits

PNNL’s cybersecurity workforce outreach efforts ramped up as both news reports of data breaches around the world and cybersecurity job postings grew, according to Ann Wright-Mockler, a senior STEM education consultant at PNNL. The news reports of incidents in a variety of sectors brought into focus the growing need for cybersecurity experts.

“A lot of the cybersecurity and computer science staff at the lab reached out to me so that we could have a better understanding of what we were all doing rather than just duplicating efforts; really trying to figure out what makes a difference rather than just doing things that are reaching the same kids,” she said.

The coordinated effort has included community awareness campaigns, teacher training programs, summer camps, staff participation in clubs and competitions, efforts to match students with mentors at the lab and lab internship programs. The outreach is specifically targeted at students in the communities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland that surround PNNL, known as the Tri-Cities.

“Students who are local are more likely to want to come back to the Tri-Cities even if they go away to college,” Wright-Mockler said. “So, we grow a local workforce. That’s more effective than only trying to recruit somebody further away, especially in high-demand careers.”

CyberPatriots join the CyberForce

PNNL’s outreach effort includes encouraging staff to participate as coaches and mentors for the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot program, which is a cyber-focused STEM education program for high school students. The centerpiece is an annual competition that puts student teams in charge of protecting a company’s information technology network from simulated targeted cyberattacks.

“Students get to meet similarly interested students outside their school and get to practice together,” noted Daniel Sanner, a cybersecurity engineer at PNNL who helps coordinate, coach and mentor around a dozen local teams each year. “After the competitions are done, we teach students whatever computer science or cyber skills they want to learn.”

In college, many of the students who participated in CyberPatriot go on to participate in the Department of Energy’s CyberForce Competition, which simulates efforts to protect cyber enabled infrastructure critical to the Department of Energy. Sanner serves as a “Red Team” lead, meaning he hacks all the defending college teams in every way possible, looking for vulnerabilities.

“This is the pro leagues for cyber college students,” Sanner said. “We regularly hear from students how these realistic competitive events cause them to return to school devoted to improve for when they return the next year, challenging themselves to learn skills and tools far above what they need for a GPA, but are what they truly need to have for a decent resume to start off a career.”

The BOLTS of the cyber workforce

A recently launched mentorship program at PNNL called Bridging Opportunities for Leadership and Training in STEM, or BOLTS, aims to identify and attract into STEM careers capable students from underserved schools in the Tri-Cities area. These are students who may lack solid academic support structures at home and are at risk of slipping through the cracks.

“The goal is for them to have opportunities, increase their network and, most likely, change their professional career moving forward,” said Romie Morales Rosado, a scientist in the computing and analytics division at PNNL, who created BOLTS. “We’re making sure that students who have limited access can have access.”

Teachers and members of the non-profit organization Communities in Schools help the PNNL team identify high school students for the three-year mentorship program, which begins in the 11th grade. The students are paired with a mentor at PNNL, who guides them through the process of securing a summer internship at the lab.

The following school year, the mentor-mentee relationship continues, including guidance on how to share their summer internship work with others as well as support applying for college and a second summer internship.

“This is part of building their confidence and setting them up for success,” Rosado said.

The program is currently in its second year. The mentor-mentee relationship is expected to continue during the students’ first year of college and will include ongoing support for the students to secure additional internships at various national laboratories, including PNNL. At its core, Rosado added, the program is intended to establish a trusting relationship between students and the labs.

Power of internships

Internships are an avenue for PNNL staff to share their knowledge and passion for their work, according to Penny McKenzie, a cybersecurity engineer at the lab who discovered her passion for computer science and cybersecurity through a series of internships as a student in her 30s at Columbia Basin College, a community college in Pasco.

McKenzie spent her early career working in customer service jobs as she raised her daughter. When her daughter reached high school, McKenzie applied for and was accepted into a worker retraining program that led to a computer science class at Columbia Basin College.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is really crazy. I really love this. I know I can do this,'” she recalled.

Her interest led to an internship at Idaho National Laboratory (INL) in Idaho Falls, Idaho. A mentor there encouraged her to apply for a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity at Columbia Basin College.

“Again, I found that I absolutely loved it. I was really good at it and it was just crazy in my mind that I was good at something different than customer service,” McKenzie said.

She applied for another internship through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program and was accepted for a cybersecurity internship at INL. The following year, she applied for another SULI and found a placement doing industrial control systems cybersecurity at PNNL, which is closer to her family and home.

The PNNL internship spurred McKenzie to do a capstone research project at CBC on industrial control systems cybersecurity, a project that she presented during her interview for a full-time job with PNNL.

“Because of the knowledge that I learned for the whole year and a half of my internship at PNNL, I got hired right away,” she said. “I would never have done anything differently because, I think, all those experiences really set me up for the success that I have now.”

Today, McKenzie is passing on the knowledge she’s gained through ongoing outreach to cybersecurity students at CBC as well as participating as a mentor teacher in area high schools, teaching summer camps at the lab and hosting interns of her own.

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