Jun 10 2022

Colleges Seek New Ways to Foster Cybersecurity Mentorship Programs

Attempts at establishing such programs are promoting workforce development and helping close diversity gaps in the field.

The cybersecurity workforce in the United States is not big enough or diverse enough, but programs focused on strengthening the next generation of employees are aiming to change that, in part by tapping current workers for help.

While formalized mentorship programs within higher education institutions are rare, outside organizations can provide opportunities for students and IT departments to join and learn, creating what could become in-house talent pipelines.

Addressing Workforce Development Through Mentorships

The workforce shortage in cybersecurity has persisted for years, with Cyberseek’s national heat map reporting 714,548 job postings for cybersecurity jobs between May 2021 and April 2022, and data compiled by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education shows that only 50 percent of hiring managers believed applicants for those open jobs were well qualified.

In response, some colleges and universities have begun developing cybersecurity degree programs in recent years, and others have adjusted their hiring practices, allowing remote work to expand their potential employee base, says Brian Kelly, director of the cybersecurity program at EDUCAUSE, who also noted that the workforce shortage is not unique to the cybersecurity field.

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To do its part to strengthen the workforce, EDUCAUSE recently created a program that includes a potential mentorship component. The information security pathway, which is available on the EDUCAUSE website, offers advice, shares stories, and helps connect mentors and potential mentees at each step of an individual’s career.

“The pathways program really takes folks from early, entry-level jobs through CISO roles, and that is helping with that workforce development, ensuring that we have a pipeline of new talent coming into higher ed information security,” says Kelly. “I think one of the really cool parts about that is the way the pathways are structured. At each level it has a call to action, which connects folks with mentoring opportunities, with resources that they can use to move through their careers.”

EDUCAUSE also offers one-on-one and group mentoring opportunities, called mentoring circles, in a variety of fields, including cybersecurity. Kelly was particularly enthusiastic about the mentoring circles, which he said offer opportunities for professionals to share successes or brainstorm solutions to specific problems that serve as the subject of each meeting.

“If there is an issue that you’re struggling with, maybe a technical issue, you can come together in these mentoring circles and maybe someone at an institution that’s already solved multifactor authentication can help you learn all of the pieces to that, and we found those to be really, really popular,” says Kelly.

READ MORE: Robust technology supports higher ed cybersecurity training programs.

In both types of mentorships, Kelly says, the training serves as a chance to sharpen and put to practical use the skills being taught in cybersecurity education. Perhaps more important is a chance to work on soft skills — things like confidence and communication that are not explicit parts of academic programs.

“In cybersecurity, sometimes we’re accused of being the geeks, the nerds of the world, and having that senior-level relationship helps you with those soft skills,” says Kelly. “There is that professional development aspect to both take that technical acumen that students and early-career folks may have and move that into something that has business context and understands the mission and vision of the university.”

Kelly says some colleges and universities have taken on mentorship-type programs internally as well, creating what he calls a “pipeline” of new talent from the student body and incorporating them into the schools’ cybersecurity offices, a relationship he believes is a win-win for students and schools. One such program exists at California Polytechnic State University, for example, where a small cybersecurity staff is bolstered by student help.

“Those programs are maybe not directly called mentoring programs, but it’s really that workforce pipeline that’s helping with workforce shortages on campuses, and it’s also really valuable to pair up that real-world experience,” says Kelly.

Addressing Diversity and Equity Through Cybersecurity Mentorships

In Massachusetts, one organization working directly with cybersecurity students is looking not only to build a future workforce but one that more accurately represents the makeup of the country.

2021 report from the Aspen Tech Policy Hub details the underrepresentation of minorities and women in the field. As of September 2021, Black (9 percent) and Hispanic (4 percent) communities were vastly underrepresented in cybersecurity relative to their percentage of the U.S. population (13 and 19 percent, respectively), and women made up just 24 percent of the cybersecurity workforce.

DISCOVER: How higher ed is training the next generation of cybersecurity professionals.

The MassCyberCenter — part of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a group funded by the state — created a mentorship program in 2020 with the explicit aim of closing some of those gaps in representation. Stephanie Helm, a 29-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who served in information warfare, is the director of the MassCyberCenter and says she drew on some of her own career experiences when helping get the mentorship program off the ground.

“Coming from my background in the Navy, I was one of the first women to do anything. It was very daunting, sometimes, to enter to into a field where you weren’t sure what was going on — was I really welcomed or not? Along the way I had someone who reached a hand out to me,” says Helm. “Generally speaking, it was a male, but that person was sensitive enough to understand that there might be a pathway for me to be included in this community and become a leader.”

MassCyberCenter’s mentorship program is fully volunteer and involves students in college or cybersecurity certificate programs, matching them one-on-one with a professional in any number of sectors across the state. The three-month program culminates in a student presentation for the entire cohort, highlighting projects they worked on with their mentors.

The MassCyberCenter program has grown from a cohort of 10 students in the fall of 2020 to a class of 41 in the spring of this year. Helm says she looks forward to the day former mentees return to join the program as mentors once their careers are established, but for now she focuses on the boost of confidence mentees are getting from their time in program.

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