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Challenge #5: Untapped Talent—Efforts to Support Alternate Career Paths Could Increase Cyber Workforce

Faced with high demand for cybersecurity and information technology (CS/IT) professionals, some industry leaders say it’s time to actively support alternative career development paths and tap into a wealth of talent that is currently going to other sectors.

“For an industry that is very understaffed, employers are still being extremely selective,” said Kent Malwitz, President of UMBC Training Centers. “There are just not enough people going through the traditional route of a four-year college degree, certifications and internships to meet the demand. So there needs to be open mindedness and bold steps to bring people into the industry through other paths.”

In its white paper, “Top Challenges in Acquiring Cybersecurity/Information Technology Talent,” the FMA Education and Steering Committee identified “supporting alternative career paths” as one of the five top challenges the industry must address to meet workforce demand.

The industry’s focus on hiring workers with degrees, certifications and experience discourages or excludes many other capable individuals, including non-traditional learners, low-income individuals, diverse populations, career changers and even transitioning military.

“We talk about the STEM pipeline. The biggest leak in the whole pipeline is between high school and whatever is next for kids who aren’t going directly to college. Ultimately, most of those kids end up in retail because they need to earn money to survive,” said Maureen McMahon, Deputy Superintendent of Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

That population, however, includes young people with tech abilities and education, including some graduates of the cyber program at Meade High School.

“You have a lot of bright and talented kids who are coming out of high school and, for whatever reason, are not going to college right away. How do we get them a job and give them a path to a career?” said Kirkland Murray, President and CEO of the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation (AAWDC).

AAWDC is currently working on multiple initiatives to address that population and other potential CS/IT professionals. It is putting together an application to the state to sponsor a four-year CS/IT apprenticeship program and looking for companies to partner in the effort.

“We want to partner with schools to do a pre-apprenticeship program for seniors, especially the seniors who aren’t going to college immediately. We would provide them with training so when they graduate, they would be equipped to go into the apprenticeship program and a job with a company that would support their future training and college education,” Murray said.

AAWDC is hoping to launch a mentorship program for that same population. It is also creating an ‘IT career map’ that details multiple different ways to develop a CS/IT career, including the training requirements, job options and salary levels at each stage of each path.

Other industry leaders are proposing other changes.

“One of the points raised in the FMA group is that government is missing maybe 30 percent of your opportunity from a workforce perspective because of the way you set contract requirements,” said Jack Terry, Vice President and Deputy Operations Manager at Leidos.

Broad requirements for contract staff with set degrees, certifications and experience levels may not be necessary for all contract work. Consequently, those requirements can needlessly exclude capable professionals who come through alternate career paths, and hinder contractors’ ability to develop junior staff, Terry said.

“I would like to see government start opening up the aperture with regard to more junior labor categories in their contracts and allow industry to take some of those folks under our wing and give them direct experience supporting our customers’ missions,” he said.

The Fort Meade Region needs to expand efforts to harness and develop one large potential source of CS/IT professionals, namely transitioning military, said FMA President Doreen Harwood.

“In 3-5 years, Fort Meade add: will be the largest Army base in the United States topping 100,000 personnel. A large portion of this workforce is military intelligence and defense,” Harwood said. “They have a depth of understanding of cyber operations, but they don’t necessarily have the degrees or certifications in computer science and cybersecurity to directly transition into a civilian hire or government contractor position. We can leverage this large military workforce if we invest in and expand education programs that specifically target these transitioning personnel who have become a part of our community and are invaluable to the missions of Fort Meade.”

“In a few years, Fort Meade is expected to become the largest Army base in the United States. The overwhelming, 90 percent majority of that workforce is military intelligence and defense,” Harwood said. “They have an understanding of cyber, but they don’t necessarily have the degrees or certifications in computer science and cybersecurity to work as a civilian hire or a contractor to a federal agency. We could leverage that huge military workforce if we invest in education programs for them.”

Individual employers also need to rethink their hiring practices and requirements in order to tap into some unconventional talent, Malwitz said. He points to a surprising lesson he learned by changing the hiring practices at UMBC Training Centers. Typically, the centers would follow the conventional approach of posting a job description for a tech job then collecting and vetting applications.

“We would get people with amazing resumes, great education, certifications in some cases. But then we would sit them down at a keyboard to do a technical test and they would fail,” Malwitz said. “So we flipped the process around. We put the technical test on the Internet and said if you can pass this, then we want to see your resume.

“We ended up with a former Marine who was trained by the military to do technical work. He didn’t have a degree, worked at Geek Squad and had a terrible resume. There is no way we would have ever hired this guy based on his resume alone… But he’s one of the best hires I have ever made. I would love to see more employers in the Fort Meade Alliance think about that as a strategy.”