As the mom of a recent high school graduate, I silently cringe when a well-meaning person asks where he is heading to college. I’d prefer they asked a more open-ended question about what his plans for the future are. In fact, my son is headed to a state university for a four-year degree in the fall. But many other young adults his age have decided that college isn’t the best choice for them. It’s especially relevant in the age of the cybersecurity skills gap.

Many new skilling options, like certifications and digital badges for students, offer other paths to a well-paying job. Digital badges in education can help solve (or at least reduce) two problems at the same time. They open quicker (and less expensive) paths to careers and the skills gap.

The Increasing Skills Gap

When a business or agency doesn’t fill a position in this field, it can’t properly protect against threats. It may be easy to think that this is an organizational or industry problem. However, digital defense is a global issue everyone should have a hand in. After all, everyone feels the effects in one way or another.

Attacks can hurt vendors, delay mail and even interfere with filling our cars up with gas. With the high cost of breaches, such as victims of the SolarWinds attack reporting an average impact of $12 million, companies typically absorb the costs by raising prices. That affects all businesses and consumers.

Demand for skilled workers in this field is much higher than the number of qualified job applicants. Almost four million people — a 145% increase — need to be added to the workforce worldwide to close the global cybersecurity skills gap.

However, with a survey finding that only 9% of millennials want a cybersecurity career, the industry must make a significant change in strategy to close the gap. Today’s messaging and lack of career paths will result in a bigger gap between needs and people.

New Collar Jobs Help Reduce Skills Gap

Many students are not aware that many tech careers offer well-paying jobs without a college degree. The ISC reports that the average salary in North America for cybersecurity workers is $90,000, and the average increases from $76,500 without certification to $93,000 with it. The study also found that 68% of cybersecurity professionals don’t have a well-defined career path, which may contribute to the skills gap.

Fixing this starts by offering skills-based training. That could include digital badges as well as getting the word out about these options. IBM coined the term New Collar to refer to the many technology careers, such as cybersecurity, cloud application development and mobile application development, that focus on skills instead of requiring traditional degrees. Students, parents, teachers and well-meaning bystanders can all benefit from learning about New Collar career options. From there, we can help reduce the skills gap and prevent damaging attacks.

Starting Early

By increasing students’ exposure to cybersecurity both as a career and technology in grades K to 12, teachers can help close the skills gap. The concept is often abstract to students. So, showing them as much about the industry and tools as possible increases their interest.

An EdWeek Research Center report found that less than half (45%) of teachers reported that their students were learning about cybersecurity. On top of that, small and high-poverty districts are much less likely to teach students about this field. Therefore, students in under-served areas have a lower chance of knowing about the career paths the industry provides. Students want to learn through camps, clubs and contests more than in a standalone class. They can also learn that the skills gap means they’re likely to find a job.

Face-to-face and hands-on time with people already working in the field also helps increase exposure and interest. At IBM’s CyberDay4Girls, preteen and teenage girls learn about how to protect themselves online as well as basics about threat modeling. They also get to talk with people who work in the industry to learn what it’s like and ask questions. Since the program began in 2016, more than 39,000 middle and high school girls have joined, narrowing the skills gap.

Digital Badge Programs

Instructors can also use IBM’s Digital Badge program in the classroom. For example, IBM’S MyInnerGenius assessment teaches what New Collar IT careers may be a fit for their skills and personality. Students can then begin earning digital badges, which they can use to go on to earn a certificate or specialization. Digital badges for students, such as Cybersecurity Basics and Cybersecurity Compliance & System Administration, teach relevant, current information. Students can also combine badges to earn specializations, such as the Cybersecurity IT Fundamentals Specialization, which can help lead to a job in the industry.

Changing Society

Learning about this field and earning digital badges can help students find their career and reduce the skills gap. But, the solution also involves society changing what they expect of children. A four-year degree after high school isn’t always the best way to get a high-paying job.

By educators and parents both offering New Collar jobs as a positive option to students, starting in elementary school, more young adults will likely turn to careers such as cybersecurity instead of heading to a four-year school that isn’t a fit for their needs. Each of us needs to remember when talking to young adults to be open-ended in our questions. Along with the rest, that will help encourage those looking toward a New Collar path.

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