There are an estimated 350,000 open cybersecurity positions in the U.S., according to a 2017 report from Cybersecurity Ventures. And it looks as though the talent shortage won’t be improving anytime soon. Globally, the shortfall is predicted to reach 3.5 million by 2021.

On the other hand, what if the skills gap is actually misinterpreted — and things aren’t as dire as they appear?

Another Kind of Cybersecurity Gap

Whether you agree the industry is facing a severe predicament or not, getting children interested in security is critical. A pervasive theory shared by many industry experts: We need a young workforce who already possess many of the required cybersecurity skills to fill the open positions. In the U.K., for example, the National College of Cyber Security is set to open at world-famous Bletchley Park, ZDNet reported. Initiatives like this will likely have an impact in the future — even if we don’t see immediate results.

To get to the bottom of this pressing issue, I reached out to Stephen Northcutt, founder of Global Information Assurance Certification and founding president of the SANS Institute. Northcutt believes that before we jump to conclusions about the reported number of open jobs, we must understand that there is no such thing as a “cybersecurity job.” He stressed that the best way to determine how to adjust the training pipeline to remediate the problem is to segment cybersecurity positions into primary care (first contact) and non-primary care, and then segment positions by specialty.

“There is certainly a shortage of first-contact cybersecurity professionals,” Northcutt said. “The evidence of that would be the companies and government organizations that suffer a breach and need to bring in outside expertise to deal with it.”

Although the SANS Institute has been training security professionals since 1989, the company has grown in the past five years, both in total courses and courses tailored to meet specific needs.

The Kids Are All Right

Northcutt agrees that we do, in fact, need to start teaching youth at an earlier stage in their educational life cycle. “Basic cybersecurity domain knowledge is not generally taught in high schools, trade schools, skills-based community colleges or undergraduate colleges,” he said. “There are some wonderful exceptions, but far too few.”

One notable exception is a cybersecurity course created by eDynamic Learning, one of the top publishers of online career and elective courses for high schools. Melissa Haveman, eDynamic’s content director, explains that the company has seen an increasing number of requests for courses like cybersecurity, digital citizenship and other tech-related topics.

Listen to the podcast: Calling All Students! Consider a Career in Cybersecurity

“A cybersecurity course was a great opportunity to provide students interested in a cybersecurity career more information about the field and the skills they’d need to be successful,” Haveman said. “It’s also a fascinating topic for the students who want a cutting-edge elective or to learn how to improve their safety and privacy online.”

According to Haveman, students will always love exciting topics, and the cybersecurity field has many to go around. Students taking the course receive valuable hands-on experience and have the opportunity to improve the cybersecurity on their own devices. They also learn how professionals handle some of the common issues that show up in the headlines.

Perhaps an engaging, less-formal introduction to the field is precisely what is needed for students’ interests to be piqued at the right time. And with tech ever-present in so many areas, acquiring the knowledge and skills to better understand and use technology at the high school level gives students a better opportunity to expand on what they’ve learned as they enter colleges, universities and the workforce.

“That foundational knowledge of cybersecurity allows students to explore further, whether they choose the area for a career or just apply the knowledge for their personal use,” Haveman said.

Facing the Cybersecurity Skills Gap

A more plugged-in youth can only take us so far and only addresses a part of the problem. Keeping up with cybersecurity is difficult — and there never seems to be enough time in the day to cover all the bases. So, how do we address this dilemma?

For Northcutt, the answer may lie with artificial intelligence (AI), which could be a catalyst in breaking through the skills gap. Because your typical cybersecurity position probably involves many repetitive tasks on a given day, consider the impact AI can have in reducing some of the tedious responsibilities that consume precious resources.

“The number of repetitive tasks a cybersecurity worker undertakes in a work week boggles the mind,” said Northcutt. “I was taught that, after you have done a task manually three times, take the time to write a script to automate it. In the quickly growing personal assistant world, they have the buzzword ‘skills.’ The term is slightly misleading, but it coveys the idea.”

No matter where you stand on which numbers to believe concerning the size of the cybersecurity skills gap, it’s comforting that many positive signs are pointing to improvement. We are probably a few years away from impactful change, but there does appear to be a shift around the corner.

Read the IBM Institute of Business Value report: Addressing the Skills Gap with a New Collar Approach

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