As the number of networked devices and objects in homes, businesses and schools continues to multiply, threats to cybersecurity are growing exponentially as well. Cybersecurity professionals who can keep these systems safe are in high demand, experts say — and educational programs can play a key role in helping to fill this pipeline by exposing students to cybersecurity concepts and careers beginning at an early age.

The number of jobs in cybersecurity is on the rise, and organizations are struggling to fill them. According to CyberSeek, a website that posts information about cybersecurity positions, there are 128,000 openings for information security analysts each year in the United States, but only 88,000 employees fill them. That amounts to an annual talent shortfall of 40,000 workers for what is the profession’s largest job.

“Everybody needs cybersecurity professionals,” says Dr. Emma Garrison-Alexander, vice dean of the cybersecurity graduate program at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). “If you’re using computers and software to carry out your mission, then you need cybersecurity professionals. So, the need is huge. And I expect it to continue to grow, because the number of adversaries who are looking to steal information or wreak havoc on computer systems is growing as well.”

The Role of K-12

The job prospects for students earning a cybersecurity degree or certificate are quite promising, Garrison-Alexander says — and there are jobs in cybersecurity for graduates with all levels of education, from an (ISC)2 certification to a master’s or doctorate degree. But meeting the need for cybersecurity professionals will only be possible with the help of K-12 schools. Early exposure to cybersecurity concepts and career options is critical, Garrison-Alexander explains, adding: “We must get students involved as early as possible by building cybersecurity into the curriculum and making it a part of what students do.”

Dan Stein is the program director for the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity Training and Education Program. His agency oversees the National Cyber Security Awareness Month, which is an annual campaign each October to raise public awareness about the importance of cybersecurity. DHS offers free curriculum materials to help teach students how to stay safe online and keep their Chromebooks, tablets and other digital devices secure, Stein says — and school systems should be teaching these skills and concepts to students beginning in elementary school. But as schools build awareness of the need for cybersecurity strategies, they should start making their students aware of the career possibilities that exist in the cybersecurity field as well, he asserts.

Preparing Students for Cybersecurity Careers

Colleges or career and technical education centers that want to establish educational programs leading to a cybersecurity degree or certificate should look to the DHS’ National Centers of Academic Excellence (CAE) program as a model, Stein says. The program includes core knowledge units explaining the skills that professionals should learn in areas such as cyber investigations, digital forensics and data security analysis. Educational programs that are mapped to these knowledge units are eligible to apply for CAE designation — which could help with recruiting students and placing them in jobs once they graduate.

An EdTech Magazine article covers five additional tips for building successful cybersecurity educational programs, such as talking with local businesses and IT professionals to understand their workforce needs. Hands-on exposure to network intrusion detection software and other technologies used by cybersecurity professionals is also key. “Having a state-of-the-art curriculum based on real-world technologies is critical,” UMUC’s Garrison-Alexander says. “You want students to be able to conceptualize how a network environment works, but it’s also important for students to get practical classroom experience. Companies want employment-ready graduates. Our students are exposed to the same tools in the classroom that they’ll find in the field.”

Looking for additional ways to bring the benefits of technology into the classroom? Learn more about emerging technology in education here.