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Cybersecurity professionals needed; taskforce looking to make Arizona cybersecurity capital of U.S.

Prescott High School students Gabriel Proctor, left, Malia Harris, Nicholas Kissel and Zachery Griswold voluntarily spend a Saturday participating in a CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition.
Photo by Max Efrein.

Prescott High School students Gabriel Proctor, left, Malia Harris, Nicholas Kissel and Zachery Griswold voluntarily spend a Saturday participating in a CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense Competition.

The United States is facing a significant shortage of cybersecurity professionals.

While there are 778,402 employed cybersecurity professionals nationwide, there remain 348,975 cybersecurity job openings, 8,447 of which are in Arizona, according to Cyber Seek, a digital resource built by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to address the cybersecurity talent gap.

“It’s nearly a 50 percent growth needed today,” said Jon Haass, department chair and associate professor of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Cyber Intelligence and Security Department.

And the need is rapidly increasing as cyber becomes a staple of the world’s functionality.

“Your phone’s camera has GPS; your car has a Wi-Fi hotspot; your thermostat at home can be connected to the internet; your gas meter is read by a little Wi-Fi hotspot off the side so the guy driving around in his truck can just drive by and pick it up … all of these things are connected,” Haass said.

Cybersecurity workers are the people tasked with protecting these aspects of our daily lives as well as the country’s most important and private information, from bank accounts to sensitive military communications.

Knowing this, representatives from many of Arizona’s universities, colleges, businesses and chambers of commerce formed a statewide taskforce this last summer to begin tackling the issue.

Haass is a member of the taskforce and said they are collaborating to put together a package that explains how to increase the number of cybersecurity students, how to get those students into the Arizona workforce and how the various industries in the state can support the effort financially or through marketing.

“If we don’t get the word out, how is somebody supposed to know that there are these thousands of jobs available out there, and how are they supposed to know where somebody can get trained?” Haass said.

A vital path to success is engaging more youth, Haass said.

A program that has had notable success in doing this is the Air Force Association’s CyberPatriot. The national youth cyber education program centers on an annual cyber defense competition in which teams of high school and middle school students take on the roles of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company.

CyberPatriot is now in its ninth year of competition and has grown from just a handful of teams to 4,000 teams nationwide.

Prescott High School students taking duel credit IT courses offered through Yavapai Community College have participated in CyberPatirot for the last three years. In their first year, they earned first place in the state out of four teams in their division. The competition has increased substantially just in those three years with about 40 Arizona teams now competing in their division.

Malia Harris is a PHS junior who is participating in this year’s rounds of competition. Out of the 27 PHS students taking duel credit IT courses this year, she is the only female — not unusual within the IT industry.

“We need to attract and retain more women in the field because more traditionally, it’s been dominated by males and it is imperative to open channels that will allow women to feel comfortable in the field and be attracted to it as a career choice,” said Frank J. Grimmelmann, president & CEO/intelligence liaison officer for the non-profit Arizona Cyber Threat Response Alliance (ACTRA) and a leader of the Arizona taskforce.

In Harris’ eyes, the lack of female talent in the IT industry gives her a leg up going forward into her desired career as a cybersecurity professional.

“It helps me stand apart,” Harris said.

As far as the taskforce goes, Grimmelmann believes the primary goal is for Arizona as a whole to create and maintain a unified voice on what its cybersecurity needs are and how it plans to fill the gap.

“Otherwise, if we are competing among each other locally, it puts us at a disadvantage of other states and cities that do have a unified approach as far as attracting the talent,” Grimmelmann said.

If the taskforce is successful, Grimmelmann believes Arizona can become a cybersecurity mecca.

“I firmly believe that we can become the cybersecurity valley, if you will, of the nation given the ecosystem of trust and advances we have in this state,” Grimmelmann said.

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