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Challenge #1: FMA committee seeks causes, solutions for lack of diversity in cyber workforce

The problem is evident at most any industry event or cybersecurity worksite. The Fort Meade Region, like the rest of America, suffers from a serious lack of diversity in its cyber workforce.

As they assessed the obstacles to growing the region’s cybersecurity/information technology (CS/IT) workforce, members of the FMA Education and Workforce Steering Committee identified “Building Diversity” as Challenge #1.

The committee’s white paper includes several data points that show the extent of that inequality. In Baltimore City, African American students fill just 9 percent of STEM classes. Across America, women still comprise only 11 percent of the cyber workforce. In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, the percentages of girls and minority students in STEM classes has grown dramatically: girls outnumber boys and minority students are 43 percent of STEM classes even though they are 33 percent of the overall student body. Yet among girls, minority students and low-income students studying STEM, most won’t pursue STEM education or employment after high school unless they have a family member or friend working in the field.

“To me, the diversity discussion was the first a-ha moment in the Steering Committee’s work,” said Doreen Harwood, FMA President. “You assume when children enter first grade that all children from all communities have an equal chance of expanding their minds and pursuing their interests. That’s not the case for a portion of our student population and it was a shocker to me to realize the breadth and depth of the problem.”

Maureen McMahon, Deputy Superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said many minority students and students from lower income families “run into expectation and opportunity gaps early on.”

Often, those children don’t have anyone in their family or social sphere who works in cyber or STEM. Consequently, those children lack role models and close connections who can fuel their interest in STEM and motivate them to excel in STEM subjects. They may also lack resources that are readily available to more affluent children, such as access to clubs, camps or teachers with IT training.

Students may discover a passion for coding, robotics or other STEM activities in middle or high school. However, if their previous academic record is only “pretty fair,” they could face challenges meeting the academic requirements to pursue a STEM career, McMahon said. “Many of those late bloomers are students of color and socio-economically disadvantaged students.”

Employers, as well as educators, need to the face the challenge of helping students pursue a CS/IT career, said Kirkland Murray, President and CEO of Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation.

“You have bright students who go through the IT and cybersecurity program at Meade High School. For financial or other reasons, they are not looking to go to college. We have to give those individuals an opportunity,” Murray said.

More employers need to recognize the potential in minority and lower income students and create some opportunities for them to thrive.

“You need to be willing to open your mind, look outside what the cyber workforce looks like now and imagine what it could look like,” Murray said. “Make it a priority to create more diversity with women, with minorities, with kids that have different GPAs.”

The Black Lives Matter movement and growing focus on racial inequality are compelling “more businesses to make real change and not just give lip service when it comes to the topics of diversity and inclusion,” said Kent Malwitz, President of UMBC Training Centers.

Instructors at the centers, where students of color are often the majority in CS/IT classes, are supporting an additional effort to build diversity in the region’s CS/IT workforce.

“These days, especially with women and people of color, we are really encouraging them to think about not only getting a job in cybersecurity, software development or IT, but starting a company at some point,” Malwitz said. “I think that’s when real change will happen, when you have more businesses owned by women and people of color in the cybersecurity field.”

In its white paper “Top Challenges in Acquiring CS/IT Talent in the Fort Meade Region,” the Steering Committee states the FMA needs to “better understand and actively address the conditions that prevent many students from diverse populations from considering or achieving careers in cyber.” The paper’s recommendations and desired outcomes include:

  • Completing an inventory of organizations, programs and services in the region that provide diverse populations with education, training, experience, career information and other assistance to pursue CS/IT;
  • Developing a better understanding of what types of initiatives succeed in fostering a more diverse CS/IT workforce and how educators, industry and government can support similar initiatives; and
  • Engage in advocacy efforts for such programs through partnerships with local public school systems, community colleges, UMBC Training Centers, Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation and other organizations.