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Apprenticeship initiative strives to create non-traditional path to cyber careers

Faced with shortages of cyber security/information technology workers, disconnects between academic programs and employer needs, and difficulties providing work experiences to students, some training experts are suggesting the CS/IT industry adopt an alternate model of workforce development – namely, apprenticeships.

“This is a way for employers to reimagine workforce, reimagine training, reimagine education and connect with new populations of workers they might not have been considering,” said Chris MacLarion, Director of the Maryland Apprenticeship and Training (MAT) program with the Maryland Department of Labor.

Under MAT, the department has approved three CS/IT apprenticeship programs to date. Each includes a temporary position with a sponsoring employer, on-the-job technical training tailored to that employer’s needs, and a course of studies at an academic institution. The Hogan administration has expanded state resources dedicated to offsetting training costs and easing the startup of additional apprenticeships.

Based on its decade of experience providing cyber operator training to U.S. Army personnel, the University of Maryland Baltimore County Training Centers launched a cyber apprenticeship program in 2018. The program enables individuals who have a degree or industry experience or technical training, to round out their professional development and quality for cyber security jobs. Its requirements map to the standards of the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), including for Incident Responder, Cyber Security Specialist, Cyber Analyst and Penetration Tester. It requires students to earn six CS/IT certifications and provides them with 2,000 hours of hands-on, keyboard experience. Working through the Career Skills Program at Fort Meade, UMBC also offers an accelerated version of the program to individuals who are transitioning out of the military.

“The idea that new employees can get into cyber security through a workforce pathway – and not through a four-year degree – is new to the civilian market,” said Martha Laughman, Director of Workforce Channel Development at UMBC Training Centers. “Historically in the civilian world, you would need a four-year degree plus two or three years of experience plus your certifications. That’s about a seven-year, traditional pathway. We’re trying to cut that down.”

The program is popular among aspiring cyber workers.

“I have already had three calls this morning from potential students who want to apply for apprenticeships,” said Brent Campbell, Veteran/Military Workforce Channel Manager with UMBC Training Centers. “The apprentice applicants are plentiful and ready and willing… But getting employers educated on the benefits of using a program like this as a non-traditional means of recruiting talent is not as easy.”

Although apprenticeships have been used for hundreds of years to train skilled tradespeople, “employers haven’t seen apprentices in professional jobs before,” Laughman said.

Determining what capabilities an apprentice could bring to an organization and how to fit them into the workflow can be challenging. Established recruiting processes often conflict with hiring apprentices and changing those processes can be tricky and time-consuming.

While most large federal contractors fund summer internship programs for college students, few have the leeway to use operational funds to hire year-long apprentices who don’t yet have the skill sets or security clearances required on government contracts, said Doreen Harwood, FMA President.

At Leidos, Chief Cybersecurity Engineer Robert C. Smith sees benefits in supporting CS/IT apprenticeships and opportunities to create them but only if industry and government make significant changes.

A few years ago, an uncommon federal contract included an “apprentice-style labor category” which enabled Leidos to rotate young, cleared workers (often for stints of six to nine months) through different portions of the contract’s work.

“That rotational experience is the best model we have seen,” Smith said.

It enabled young workers to get exposure to and experience in different elements of CS/IT work, helped them build skills and identify their career preferences, and enabled Leidos to get deeper insights on what would be the best employment fit for each individual.

Leidos, which partners in the National Security Scholars Program and attempts to gain security clearances for promising interns, has started applying some apprentice-style practices to its management of new, junior staff. Leidos assigns mentors to young CS/IT workers to help guide their career development, establishes and supports goals of obtaining key certifications, and looks for opportunities to give those employees varied work experiences. Those opportunities, however, are limited by the terms of federal contracts.

“Government needs to be more open to utilizing services like junior-level labor categories…and even allow individuals who are still students, to work for short periods of time or part-time on contracts,” Smith said.

In addition, industry needs to broaden the range of candidates it considers for internships and other entry-level opportunities, he said.

“We need to look at community colleges and do a better job identifying workforce personnel there,” Smith said. “Just because a person’s academic path started at a two-year college doesn’t mean they don’t have the will, the knowledge and the capability to do this work… If we can get labor categories from the defense-industrial base that will enable us to bring these students in, then they can come work for a company like Leidos that will do tuition reimbursement, help them get their four-year degree and finish their professional training.”

The challenges of adapting the apprenticeship model to the CS/IT industry “has made it harder to scale up these projects that we expected,” MacLarion said.

However, state officials are looking to partner with companies to launch new cyber apprenticeships and working with UMBC Training Centers to expand its program statewide “to connect with more people coming out of the community college system, off the military bases and out of the workforce centers,” Laughman said.