From Tiktok to bear mascots — 7 ways education is recruiting cyber talent

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in cybersecurity that need filling. Higher education and industry are getting creative to attract new talent.

an animated bear character
(Scoop News Group)

Higher education institutions and businesses are targeting students for cybersecurity careers by offering hands-on experience at high-tech cyber ranges, designing mascots to teach K-12 students about cracking ciphers and by posting videos on TikTok.

The debate on how to fill nearly half a million cybersecurity jobs in August made its way to a White House summit where colleges, universities and companies promised to bolster the workforce. Higher education institutions are offering  traditional cybersecurity programs with degrees and credentials, but they’re also giving students hands-on experience, protecting networks against threats and connecting students with their future employers. Many are also raising awareness of careers in cybersecurity as early as elementary school.

1.  Naming cybersecurity ambassadors

1.  Naming cybersecurity ambassadors, 1.  Naming cybersecurity ambassadors

The University of Southern Maine developed a cybersecurity ambassador program for its undergraduate and graduate students. Ambassadors conduct research into cybersecurity risks and trends, then reach out to the community, as well as lead events on the university’s campus in Portland, Maine. A March campus event featuring the university’s cybersecurity ambassadors focused on four key risk areas for students — social media, home networks, identity protection and phishing attacks. It also created a space where students could ask questions about how to defend themselves online.

Students in the cybersecurity ambassador program do not need to major in cybersecurity, but must “demonstrate the desire to further their knowledge of cybersecurity while helping to build a stronger cybersecurity posture throughout Maine,” according to the program’s website.

2. Playing capture the flag

2. Playing capture the flag, 2. Playing capture the flag

For games of cybersecurity capture the flag, students use their knowledge of IT security to collect points, instead of running for physical flags. Often, teams pick challenges displayed in tiles like on the quiz show Jeopardy, with subjects like forensics or cryptography. Typically, contestants are searching for a specific string to enter into an answer field, showing they answered the question or solved a problem, picking up a “flag.” The competition is designed to allow organizations to test contestants’ practical knowledge in an accessible format, according to Arizona State University. That university has organized an annual capture the flag event for the annual Defcon conference since 2018.

Cybersecurity groups, higher education institutions and companies use the format. Purdue University Global is running a capture-the-flag competition for cybersecurity awareness month in October. Carnegie Mellon offers picoCTF, a free cybersecurity education program available year-round.

3. Offering apprenticeships

3. Offering apprenticeships, 3. Offering apprenticeships

Researchers at the Aspen Institute recommended embracing the apprenticeship model for cybersecurity, in which students learn on-the-job at businesses, as a practice for boosting diversity in the cybersecurity workforce. Colleges and universities offer these programs through partnerships with employers, with some costs offset by federal funding. The Colorado Community College system recently received $2 million for four colleges to build apprenticeship programs in fields including IT and cybersecurity.

Lake Region State College in North Dakota offers an apprenticeship program for several technical degrees that connects students with local state agencies and organizations. The “Earn to Learn” program connects students with mentors during a 2-3 year program. CityBridge, a nonprofit in Washington D.C., is offering apprenticeships with local technology companies to students in K-12 to open up career opportunities in high-demand fields.

4.  Building a national team

4.  Building a national team, 4.  Building a national team

The U.S. Cyber Games, launched this year, recruits cybersecurity talent from ages 16-24 for a team that competes on the international stage. To pick players for the first U.S. Cyber team, the organization held a series of cybersecurity competitions called the U.S. Cyber Open. About 700 “cyber athletes” participated in the games, with one group invited back to participate in training dubbed the “U.S. Cyber Combine.” The team is run through a partnership between the esports management company PlayCyber and the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education. Team members selected for the team are scheduled to compete in Athens, Greece, at the end of the year.

Colleges and universities can bolster players’ skills by offering cybersecurity clubs at a school level — a player selected for the national team from the University of North Georgia said participation in the school’s Cyber Club prepared him to compete.

5. Getting social 

5. Getting social , 5. Getting social 

TikTok plans to share information from the National Cyber Security Alliance resource library to introduce its young user base to careers in cybersecurity. The social media company’s global chief security officer, Roland Cloutier, already posts from an account called TikTokTips, which has attracted millions of followers.

“From our focus, as we continue to head back to school, we’re trying to take that opportunity with the NCSA’s focus to inspire next-gen practitioners and have this pipeline and get kids to think about careers in security and privacy,” he told EdScoop in August. “What we want to see is young people understand the opportunities in cyber.”

Nearly half of TikTok users are under 30, according to March 2021 data platform Statista, and is one of the most-used social media apps in the world.

6. Building cyber ranges

6. Building cyber ranges, 6. Building cyber ranges

Cyber ranges are facilities that can simulate ransomware attacks and other threats so students and workers can get hands-on training. Universities and colleges around the country house cyber ranges, including Virginia Tech, the University of West Florida, Metropolitan State University in Minnesota and Louisiana State University. At Louisiana State University’s cyber range, 100 students each semester participate in cybersecurity exercises.

Universities change the training offered at their ranges as new cybersecurity threats emerge. They also partner with private companies to develop lessons. One such company, Cyberbit, incorporates the tools that cybersecurity professionals use to defend against attacks into its simulations, and offers training on cloud-based attacks, as more organizations adopt cloud technologies.

7. Starting early 

7. Starting early , 7. Starting early 

Researchers at Kennesaw State University in Georgia developed virtual reality-based lessons and gamified learning software to help K-12 students develop cybersecurity skills.

“Cybersecurity is not yet an official part of school curriculums, yet we are living in an increasingly digital world,” Kennesaw professor Joy Li said in a press release. “This presented us a wonderful opportunity to make an impact on education by using games, which has become one of the most efficient ways to grab their attention. On a secondary level, we hope that this kind of exposure will encourage kids to pursue careers in cybersecurity.”

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s cybersecurity center developed games for K-12 students, both in digital and physical card formats. The games, designed for children as young as five years old, teach vocabulary and general cybersecurity concepts, like cryptography. One of the games introduces cybersecurity using bear mascots, called the CyBear family, which is complete with four bear characters named after famous computer scientists: Alan Turing, Grace Hopper, Augusta Ada King and Vint Cerf.