Research by CompTIA, one of the world’s largest technology associations, shows nearly half of the 600 U.S. IT and business executives polled believe skills shortcomings within their organizations have grown during the past two years. Skills gaps are not confined to technology alone, the survey revealed. Executives also reported skills issues in areas such as marketing, sales and business development, operations, customer service, and accounting and finance.
But perhaps none of these deficits is as troubling as the one in the realm of cybersecurity. Researchers predict cybercrime will more than triple during the next five years, and the number of cybersecurity professionals employed to keep cybercrooks at bay will not come close to keeping pace with this threat. During the next five to six years, analysts project the number of unfilled positions in cybersecurity could surpass 3 million globally creating a talent fissure that could cost businesses $6 trillion.
The catastrophic potential of this cybersecurity skills gap hasn’t been lost on corporate leadership. Per CompTIA’s “Evolution of Security Skills” study, 33% of companies surveyed report that security is a significantly higher priority for them today than it was two years ago, but 49% expect that security will be a significantly higher priority in two years than it is today.
But narrowing such a cavernous skills gap will be neither fast nor easy. The IT industry has years of work ahead of it addressing this mission. In the short term, some companies are hiring or partnering to meet cybersecurity needs, but the most common approach is to improve the existing workforce. For technical workers, CompTIA researchers found that 60% of companies use training to build security expertise, and 48% pursue certifications. Many companies also extend training to the general workforce. Ongoing programs that measure knowledge can improve security literacy for employees that are increasingly using and procuring technology.
In the long run, organizations will need to adapt and extend these techniques to the talent pipeline. My organization believes tweens and teens should become a focal point in this process. They already make up a quarter of the U.S. population and will account for more than 20 percent of the workforce in the next five years. Plus, my organization’s research indicates many in this group have the temperament to become more than technicians; they will be technologists, people working with technology of varied types in companies of all shapes and sizes across the country along a broad spectrum of industries – not just those that write software and make hardware.
We believe workers with a technologist’s mentality—an optimal mix of hard technical skills and relationship acumen (often called “soft skills”)—are well-suited for today’s fast-paced, continually evolving cybersecurity environment.
But there are issues confounding and complicating raising the next generation of technologists. Seven myths about technology careers discourage potential teenage technologists and their parents. So, in my position as leader of a philanthropic organization dedicated to creating on-ramps to tech careers, I consider busting those myths not only a duty, but a pleasure.
Let’s take the seven myths one-by-one in a series of entries in this Experts Corner article, starting with the biggest misconception of them all:
Myth #1: “Technology is all about coding, math and science”
Coding: Tech entrepreneur success stories in the news always seem to revolve around software and coding. Plus, starting salaries for web and software developers are relatively high. That’s great and surely will inspire more teens to consider tech careers. But these facts could discourage a lot of kids, too, for whom coding is neither easy, accessible nor interesting. Reality is, as more businesses and households connect more devices to the internet, more data will be gathered, which will need to be understood – and protected. We will need more technicians with cybersecurity skills, more network specialists with cybersecurity skills, more data analysts with cybersecurity skills, etc. Plus, we will need cybersecurity-savvy sales and marketing pros to match all these cybersecurity-savvy technologists with the consumers and businesses who will need their services to become cybersecure. And of course, we will need project managers and other expert technologists to direct and implement these transactions and relationships. Coding is only one aspect of this technology evolution.
Math and Science: Resourcefulness and common sense are greater predictors of success in a technology career than excelling in math and science. Communication skills such as active listening and the ability to articulate and present innovative ideas are essential for technologists. We refer to these as “soft skills,” with aptitude in areas such as problem-solving, empathy and entrepreneurship. True, good grades are important for anyone working toward any future career because they demonstrate the ability to learn and develop. And yes, solid grades in math and science certainly won’t hurt any aspiring student’s chances of finding a future position in technology. But for technologists, grades only tell part of the story. Curiosity and motivation are more important than an impressive report card – especially when confronting cybersecurity threats like social engineering techniques such as phishing and ransomware.
In short, educating cybersecure technologists must include STEM classes but not be limited to them. We believe access to tech classes in school at any level should not be dependent on how well a student scores in math and/or science. Every school should offer opportunities to learn and work with technology that are broader than a computer science curriculum, and all tracks that involve working with technology should weave cybersecurity into the syllabus.
Myth #2: “Working in technology requires a 4-year college degree”
Multiple Paths: Per the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey, 59% of computer support specialists employed that year didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. The truth is that many people land a job in tech with just some basic training and a certification. Motivated students can learn the underpinnings of technology and start troubleshooting problems or writing code after one introductory class—no matter at what age they start studying. Sure, many people learn about technology in high school and college. But plenty of others start studying through online programs that are accessible to anyone—no matter where they live.
Wide Horizon: The traditional route of earning a computer science degree isn’t as narrow a road as many would expect. The development of intangible skills, such as being flexible, adaptable and collaborative, can begin in the classroom. These soft skills, which I referred to in my earlier article, can help prepare young people for working in large organizations and other, smaller businesses. A structured program at the college level can familiarize students with workplace skills they will need on the job, such as functioning as part of a team and following the directions of a supervisor. Students also can begin to specialize in college, studying information systems, data analytics and similar courses.
Cybersecurity threats erupt quickly, and neither a 4-year degree nor a certain set of certifications is a guarantee that technologies will be able to respond successfully. Like any journey, the key to pursuing a successful cybersecurity career is being willing to adjust course while staying focused on the final goal. Because the one thing we can guarantee about technology—and the rigors of cybersecurity that surround it—is that it will evolve. So should anyone who works with it.
Which is why we, as a society, cannot tolerate the narrow-minded mentality of…
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About Charles Eaton
As Executive Vice President of Social Innovation for CompTIA and CEO of Creating IT Futures, Charles Eaton leads three philanthropic endeavors for CompTIA, the world’s largest IT trade association: CompTIA Giving, Creating IT Futures and NextUp, the organization’s initiative to inspire young people to choose technology careers.