Time to upskill the underrepresented

A shortage in cybersecurity workers is estimated to lead to two million unfilled jobs by next year alone, as industry leaders look to solve the widening skills gap.

But closing this employment hole, in a relatively new field to begin with, brings forth multifaceted challenges.

Whether it’s a lack of mentorship or educational pathways, prospective applicants are still hesitant to take up cybersecurity as a viable career option.

“People think that cybersecurity jobs are for college graduates in engineering who have been coding since they were five,” said Russ Schrader, director of the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA).

“And people who are in underserved communities really don’t know anybody who works in cybersecurity, so they don’t think of it as an option.”

Schrader spoke to The Daily Swig about how his organization, alongside the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is motivating individuals of all socio-economic backgrounds to get involved.

“It’s both practical and strategic,” he added.

His comments come during the second week of the 15th annual National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM), which focuses on filling the US-wide technical job shortage.

According to CyberSeek, an interactive tool that provides real-time analysis of the cybersecurity job market in the US, there are more than 300,000 jobs currently available, with engineers and penetration testers listed as some of the top unfilled positions.

The technical expertise needed to take on these roles, however, falls considerably short of the talent that’s available.

This has propelled organizations like Schrader’s to lead on a focus of soft skills in order to create entryways into the sector that are not necessarily dependant on extensive technical know-how.

“We’re trying to really get them [prospective candidates] into a place where they can really see cybersecurity as a career path,” said Schrader.

“And others that are older, maybe out of college with a degree, or a veteran from an underserved community who just wants to upgrade their job, will also know that this is an option for them as well.”

Aptitudes in problem-solving, communication, and working with a team are all starting points for recruiters looking to hire based on these so-called soft skills.

Companies in fields such as finance and insurance, those with a longer exposure to security hygiene practices, have started to train employees that may have previously shied away from subjects such as computer science and engineering.

Yet, despite the need for diverse skillsets, present education systems and hiring practices are holding back candidates, many of whom would excel in cybersecurity with basic upskilling or training.

“You can’t solve the skills gap purely with a focus on soft skills,” said Jack Jordan-Connelly, community manager at Immersive Labs, a platform focused on creating the next generation of cybersecurity professionals through interactive learning.

“A lot of traditional training within the cybersecurity industry is a lot of watch this video for two hours and click to see if you’ve understood everything at the end,” he told The Daily Swig.

“Our content is structured around interactive labs, the phrase that we use is kinaesthetic learning, which means learning by doing.”

Established just over a year ago, Immersive Labs offers free digital cyber training to students, veterans, and neurodiverse individuals, providing bespoke learning to groups that may not have the resources or support.

“Military veterans are an obvious one,” said Jordan-Connelly. “There’s loads of transferrable skills and lots of them [veterans] have already worked in some technical capacity but have then left the military without much guidance.”

A study last year by Barclays found that one in ten military veterans in the UK experience long-term unemployment, and while these figures may prove better than overall rates, 12% of veterans will still find themselves out of a job.

“The idea of the platform is skill-based recruitment,” said Jordan-Connelly. “Your [previous] qualifications are removed from the recruitment process and the client [employers] are just seeing a profile that says you’ve got the technical skills they need for the job.

“For veterans that have suffered from long-term unemployment, it’s a particularly great way to reskill.”

Immersive Labs has retrained 400 veterans so far through its platform, which is divided into sections ranging from theoretical knowledge, to how to use and apply tools for
malware analysis or reverse engineering. Labs can be selected based on specific job titles to ensure that the right skills are obtained.

“You can see how much that person is committed to their overall learning process by looking at how many labs they’ve done in comparison to how many they needed to complete for the jobs,” said Jordan-Connelly.

Immersive Labs says its focus on skill-based self-led learning has already contributed to a 10% increase in employment.

Next in the pipeline is an academy geared towards helping parents looking to get back into work.

“There’s not one solution to solving this problem,” mused Jordan-Connelly. “But when you start getting all these pieces falling into place next to each other, that’s when you really start to see an improvement.”

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