CISA and NPower offer free entry-level cybersecurity training

NPower, a US-based non-profit participating in a cybersecurity workforce development program started by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), is looking for recruits for a free cybersecurity training program aimed at underserved populations in the US, including women, people of color, young adults, and military veterans and their spouses. The program is part of CISA’s wider effort to address the cyber workforce shortage in the short and long term.

We’ve asked Nelson Abbott, Senior Director of Advanced Program Operations at NPower, and Chris Starling, a US Marine Corps veteran and Assistant VP at NPower California, to tell us more about it.

free cybersecurity training US

[The answers have been edited for clarity.]

How does NPower’s cybersecurity program work? How extensive is its reach?

Nelson Abbott: Our cybersecurity program is 18-weeks of intensive technical training, complemented with professional development and mentoring activities with industry professionals. Trainees have the opportunity to earn certifications recognized by the industry, and upon completion, receive career pathway support to help them launch their cyber careers.

The program is offered nationally to candidates that reside in or near the regions we currently operate in: New York/New Jersey, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and California.

Chris Starling: Cybersecurity is a natural fit for veterans. The same mindset that you need to conduct offensive and defensive operations on land, sea and in the air are applicable to the digital domain.

Another important detail is that our cyber program builds on our Tech Fundamentals program. If you are new to tech, chances are you cannot just jump into CompTIA Security+ and master that material without some understanding of the basics. Many of our Cybersecurity Program applicants are graduates of Tech Fundamentals with some going directly from that course to the cyber course and others spending a year or two in the workforce to gain a deeper understanding of networks, servers, and troubleshooting.

What are you looking for in applicants?

NA: At a basic level, candidates need to be a minimum of 18 years old, have a HS diploma (or equivalent) and be legal to work in the US. For veterans, they must also be either active duty or have an honorable or general discharge.

Beyond that, we look for previous technology training or IT experience, persistence and determination, and a true passion to pursue cybersecurity. Our employer partners also highly value communication and collaboration skills, critical thinking and problem solving, and a hunger for continued learning.

CS: This course is all about determination and commitment. I tell prospective candidates that if they can master video games, GPS on an iPhone and all manner of social media, then they probably have the aptitude to master tech fundamentals and cyber. Show up to class curious and do your homework. Bring your diverse background, experience, and a mindset of selfless teamwork.

Will the participants be learning remotely? The training is offered for “free,” but what does that mean in practice? What costs can they expect to encounter/will need to cover?

NA: Our program is fully remote, no physical attendance is required. All of NPower’s programs are completely FREE – no tuition costs, no salary garnishments, no loan repayments. All class materials are provided, and for trainees who do not have a suitable computer at home, we can make arrangements for a loaner during the course of the program. The only “cost” of the program are the trainees’ time and effort.

CS: The program is led by remote instructors. We found that our training works just as effectively this way as it did when we were physically in class; we have canvassed our employers who report the same quality and capabilities in our graduates. This simplifies and streamlines the learning and allows more time for study and eliminates the need to commute.

Virtual study sessions with fellow students also occur frequently. Cohorts of students bond and work together to master the material.

We often get asked, how can this be free? Well, it is thanks to organizations like CISA and the generosity of people who care such as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and Newmark Philanthropies.

What will the applicants gain if they finish the program? What obligations do they take on if they start and finish the program?

NA: Trainees gain an understanding of the basic theories of cybersecurity, as well as hands-on experience with many of the tools that are used by cyber professionals (Linux, NMap, Wireshark, Metasploit, Webgoat, FoxyProxy, etc).

Trainees also will have the opportunity to network with industry professionals through mentoring and guest speaking engagements. The expectation is that they are available to attend the program in its entirety, and to commit 30-35 hours per week for 18 weeks.

How successful are these types of programs at placing those who have finished them with organizations/businesses that need cyber-skilled workers?

NA: Our cybersecurity program has been in operation since 2015. Eighty percent of NPower graduates get a full-time job or continue their education. Not only is NPower changing life trajectories for individuals from vulnerable communities, but they are also strengthening the overall competitiveness of U.S. businesses hamstrung by today’s limited pool of IT talent.

CS: Graduates will earn the CompTIA Security+ certification, and also have the opportunity to earn the CompTIA Linux+ certification – both of which create a wide range of opportunities.

For veterans, when paired with a Secret or Top Secret security clearance, this certification makes them incredibly marketable for federal government and contractor positions.

In addition to the Security + certification, graduates leave with excellent training in the soft skills needed to work in the tech arena. Resumes, linked in profiles, mock interviews, and a series of outstanding tech speakers and former NPower trainees round out a program that emphasizes the whole person concept.

How can individuals apply, and how is their aptitude for cybersecurity tested?

NA: Our application is online. Once submitted, it will be reviewed, and qualified candidates will be invited for an interview.

The interview will consist of a professional/academic assessment, as well as a social support assessment. The technical assessment focuses on the fundamentals of computer networking. Keeping in mind that not all jobs are technical facing, we really try to find those candidates that express a true interest in cybersecurity, and display the grit and determination needed to not only successfully complete the training, but continue to advance their career well after graduation.

CS: We do not use a formal test specifically for cybersecurity aptitude, rather, where have you shown a combination of tech skill and “stick-to-itiveness”. If you did well in NPower’s Tech Fundamentals course, then that is a major indicator of success in the cyber course. If you come from a previous job doing web development or working satellite communications in the military, you will probably catch on quickly.

Equally important is the social support interview. NPower truly has wrap-around services through which we will work with every participant to mitigate challenges and barriers to learning.

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