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Competition Grooms Next-Gen Cybersecurity Professionals

By Corey Murray

Students interested in pursuing a career in cybersecurity are benefitting from an increasingly popular national skills competition and development initiative that is starting to attract the attention of blue-chip technology employers.

When Arizona’s Maricopa Community Colleges revealed late last year that a breach of its system’s data network potentially compromised personal information and data belonging to more than 2.4 million employees, students, community members and other stakeholders, administrators sprang into action.

They sent letters to those affected and agreed to spend upwards of $7 million on credit-monitoring services for individuals concerned about the possibility of identity theft or related fraud as a result of the breach.

For college leaders, the controversy served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of information theft in the digital age. It also shed new light on the growing importance of the cybersecurity community and the value that skilled professionals bring to the workforce.

Fortunately for Maricopa and other community-based organizations, help could be closer than administrators realize — in some cases, it’s right on campus.

That’s the belief of educators behind the National Cyber League (NCL), a skills competition and career-development program that pits students against one another in a bid to cultivate and showcase their budding cybersecurity talents.

Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and conducted in partnership with educators at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., the program is designed to help students catch the eye of technology employers.

“[This program is] exactly what industry wants—to be able to find students who have somehow been able to validate competencies around skills that the industry has said they’re looking for,” Casey W. O’Brien, director of the National CyberWatch Center (CyberWatch) at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, told ATE@20.

The other founding members of the league are the National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance, located on the campus of Moraine Valley Community College in Illinois; CyberWatch West, at Whatcom Community College in Washington State; and Mid-Pacific Information and Communication Technologies, at City College of San Francisco.

More than a trophy

Skills competitions among students are nothing new. O’Brien says that what sets the NCL apart is its focus on helping students hone and develop their skills.

We want to provide resources for faculty and students to develop knowledge and validate skills.

“[W]e really see ourselves as a development league,” he told ATE@20. “We want to provide resources for faculty and students to develop knowledge and validate skills.”

In addition to competitions, student participants receive individual scouting reports designed to highlight their talents for potential employers.

The program, which launched as a pilot initiative with $65,000 in supplemental NSF funding back in 2012, now features 945 student registrants and upwards of 200 participating educators, according to ATE@20. An online version of the competition is also available.

With plans to grow the program even more, administrators have implemented a small entry fee (up to $20) for students. The hope is that those funds will sustain the league after the NSF funding runs out.

In addition to competitions, the program offers students access to “cyber gymnasiums,” dedicated online learning environments at participating ATE centers, where they can train for important industry certifications, such as CompTIASecurity+ and the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker exams.

Educators say the practice spaces, combined with specially designed lessons, let participating students test their skills in a safe place, where they can access the latest tools and strategies without threatening the safety of secure campus networks.

Just the beginning?

The ATE NCL is promising, but it’s far from the only game in town. In Maryland, the Anne Arundel Workforce Development Corporation (AAWDC) recently touted the success of another cybersecurity training initiative, the Pathways to Cybersecurity Training Program, which is the result of a three-year, $4.9 million Department of Labor grant that combines local government, business and technology resources to train cybersecurity professionals.

Online news site Eye on Annapolis recently reported that “the program has enrolled 1,149, trained 886, awarded 755 certificates and helped to get 721 participants employed.”

“We are going to take the best practices from this grant and implement [them] into our other programs and other growth industries, such as healthcare, construction and manufacturing,” Kirkland Murray, president and CEO of AAWDC, told Eye on Annapolis.

Does your college offer cybersecurity-education programs for students? It might be time to start.

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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