It’s time to tap the next generation of cyber defenders

As college graduates of the Class of 2020 enter the workforce, we welcome a new generation of cyber professionals. Already this year’s crop of talent has demonstrated their work ethic in a virtual environment under unprecedented circumstances while exercising their skills through practical offerings such as the National Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (NCCDC). What sets many of them apart from their more tenured counterparts is that they have experienced and successfully performed while facing real-world threats even before earning their degree.

Next generation of cyber defenders

It’s estimated there are 3.9 million college graduates in the U.S. who will earn a degree during the 2019-2020 academic year, an increase of nearly 6 million students compared to five years ago. In tandem with this uptick in college graduates, the need for cybersecurity talent is also on the rise, with experts projecting the current cyber workforce needs to grow by roughly 145% in order to meet global demand.

Cybercriminals continue to accelerate the speed and sophistication of their attack methods, while under-staffed IT security teams struggle to keep up. Simultaneously, company budgets are being re-evaluated across the board, meaning cybersecurity projects could be slashed or deprioritized as a result. Combined, these factors create a recipe for disaster, but a solution may lie in the next generation of cyber defenders: college graduates.

Practical application: Investing in students and recent grads

Collegiate-level candidates are often well-versed in cybersecurity, with most having real-world experiences beyond the traditional classroom setting. For the past 14 years, NCCDC’s interactive program has offered cybersecurity experience to collegiate teams from across the country, more than 240 participated this year.

Together with their teammates, they work to defend their networks against “hackers.” The program is designed to grant undergraduate and graduate students access to specialized technical resources and mentors, as well as a career fair held by corporate and government sponsors, further developing communication and technical skills.

In addition, most graduates who enter the job market are found to be self-motivated and continuous learners – attributes that are needed to work on an IT security team. These newly minted cyber professionals are familiar with the latest technology and can easily adapt to new innovations in the workplace. These traits, paired with the fact that graduates will often accept job offers for experience, helps close the talent gap while remaining cost-conscious amid the current pandemic.

How to foster professional development among recent graduates

Now more than ever, recent graduates entering the workforce seek out employers that meet specific criteria. Research found that nearly 40% of graduates look for a job where they can see the impact of their contributions, and 44% seek a purpose-driven culture aligned with their personal values. While a recent graduate might be considered for many entry-level openings, they need to find the workplace appealing and the role fulfilling, or those job openings will remain vacant.

Mentorship is critical to gaining trust and building relationships with the next generation of cyber professionals. It’s been proven that without a role model in the industry, students are more likely to lose interest in pursuing a career in cybersecurity. Experienced industry professionals should serve as mentors for talent aspiring to enter the field.

Mentorship doesn’t have to be a rigid, time-consuming process. It can be something as simple as an informal, 30-minute check-in on an ad-hoc basis. It can also involve volunteering time at competitions like NCCDC, offering students advice in defending networks or sharing top interview tips ahead of a career fair.

Mentorship can be taken a step further through sponsorship, which involves the sponsor promoting identified talent to hiring managers. Through this referral-like process, recent graduates can network and learn of job opportunities that they are suited for after graduation. Job openings in the industry can often overwhelm newer, less experienced applicants, leading them not to apply. However, sponsors can proactively put in a recommendation for the candidate as they apply for the open role, leading to greater hiring success.

The same can be said for speaking at industry events. Many times, intimidation sets in and the next generation of cyber professionals avoid submitting a call for papers. Sponsors can encourage rising talent to meet the CFP deadline, helping in the review process along the way. Better yet, sponsors can also offer to co-present alongside this next generation, increasing the likelihood of acceptance.

From an organization’s perspective, it’s also important to evaluate if a company is appealing through a graduate’s lens. Does the organization hire, recruit or seek out new cyber talent? Is there an internship program where students prior to graduation can apply to get hands-on experience, and ultimately become permanent staff based on exceptional performance? Does the organization sponsor or volunteer time with collegiate-level cybersecurity competitions like NCCDC? If the answer is “no,” then there’s an opportunity to advocate and raise awareness of the need for such measures.

There has never been a greater need for cybersecurity professionals to detect, mitigate and resolve an escalating number of threats, and fast. The next generation of cyber operators and defenders are well equipped to join IT security teams and start making an immediate difference. It’s time to give our next generation the opportunity.

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