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FMA committee probes biggest challenges to building CS/IT workforce

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Troubled by the persistent shortage of skilled cyber security workers, the Fort Meade Alliance last year assembled a group of high-level representatives from business, government and educational organizations to identify key obstacles limiting the expansion of the cybersecurity and information technology (CS/IT) workforce and begin working towards solutions.

“I am trying to avoid overdramatizing this, but I would say we are in a crisis as a nation,” said Jim Allen, Executive Vice President of Booz Allen Hamilton. “We see media reports every day of some breach, hack or intrusion that could disrupt businesses, medical systems, financial systems, national infrastructure. I think a contributing factor to that situation is our dearth of skilled professionals to both prevent and defend against activities by malicious individuals and organizations.”

Various analysts have estimated the size of that shortage, Allen said. “The numerical estimates differ, but they are all terrible.”

Effectively addressing such a deep and complex challenge would require discussion with a broad mix of stakeholders, said Doreen Harwood, FMA President. Consequently, FMA’s Education and Workforce Committee formed a Steering Committee comprised of senior executives from government agencies and contractors, private sector companies, public school systems, workforce development agencies and institutions of higher education. Committee members were tasked with authoring a white paper that would identify the main challenges facing CS/IT education and workforce development in the Fort Meade Region.

“We wanted to bring people together who normally would not be in the same room,” Harwood said.

Repeatedly in 2019, executives from Leidos, Allegis Group, Dreamport, Under Armour, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, UMBC Training Centers and other organizations gathered at the FMA offices for in-depth discussions around the challenges facing CS/IT workforce development.

“The discussion got really interesting really quickly,” said Maureen McMahon, Deputy Superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools. “To have this whole continuum of people looking at the STEM preparation pipeline was really dynamic.”

Those discussions conveyed committee members’ expertise and highlighted blind spots and unknown obstacles.

“You could see light bulbs going on around the table,” said David Majerowicz, Director of Business Development, Government Services at Allegis Group.

Furthermore, participants were willing to reassess their own thinking on issues, said Penny Cantwell, Chair of both the Education and Workforce Committee and the Steering Committee. “The people who stepped up to work on this effort, really listened. They were open to new ideas and willing to say, ‘We haven’t done it that way before but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at it next time.’”

Impressed by the insights that each discussion produced, the committee shifted its agendas to dig into emerging issues.

The resulting white paper, “Top Challenges in Acquiring CS/IT Talent in the Fort Meade Region,” identifies five key challenges.

Building Diversity: The Fort Meade Region, like the rest of America, suffers from a serious and persistent lack of diversity in its cyber workforce. People of color, women and individuals from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds remain a small percentage of the workforce and face considerable obstacles in obtaining CS/IT education, hands-on experience and job opportunities.

Aligning K-12 Education with Cyber Opportunities: Cyber curricula offered through grade schools fails in some instances to reach enough students, inspire and enable would-be cyber professionals, or align with CS/IT needs of employers. That misalignment is fueled by aa array of factors, including a shortage of teachers with CS/IT training, insufficient knowledge among teachers and counselors of the range of CS/IT job opportunities, and limited opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience.

Harnessing Natural IT Talent: In the midst of a workforce shortage, the cyber community is failing to tap into a sizeable population of talented individuals. Those include gamers, middle schoolers who code for fun, robotics enthusiasts, and other individuals who have IT interests and skills, but may not excel in traditional academics. Established education and hiring practices are not geared to tap into and advance the skills of those individuals. Furthermore, many young people with natural IT skills never learn that their interests could translate into a cyber career.

Creating Workforce Experiences: CS/IT experience is essential to launching a cyber career. It is also one of the most difficult things to obtain. Many high school, college and university programs struggle to provide even a little hands-on experience. The number of CS/IT internships is insufficient to meet student and industry needs to qualify for entry-level jobs. Consequently, many employers have difficulty finding candidates who meet the ‘3-5 years’ experience’ requirement for those entry-level positions.

Supporting Alternate Career Paths: A major factor limiting workforce expansion is the widespread belief among students, teachers, job-changers and employers that there is only one path to a cyber career, namely excellent high school academics, a four-year CS/IT degree, a tech internship and several certifications. That paradigm excludes many talented individuals, including non-traditional learners, people with limited financial means, students and adults who make career decisions late, and even some transitioning military.

Steering Committee members say completion of the white paper is just the first step in FMA’s effort to support growth in the region’s CS/IT workforce. The white paper includes recommendations for addressing each of the five key challenges, lists outcomes sought and identifies advocates to advance the work on those initiatives. FMA is also planning a webinar about the white paper early in the new year.

Click here to read the full white paper. Future issues of the FMA newsletter will also include coverage of specific challenges identified by the Steering Committee.