Whatcom County takes on cybersecurity

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Local colleges lead the way in IT security training

In every sector of business, technological literacy has become a minimum requirement rather than a specialized skill. Ransomware, foreign hackers and security breaches make regular headlines and cause headaches for business owners, government agencies and individuals. As these external threats to our data systems and privacy continue to grow and evolve, the demand for cybersecurity professionals has expanded to include almost every field you can imagine.

Educational institutions in Whatcom County — with major support from the tech industry — are stepping up to ensure the availability of a trained workforce to battle the ever-expanding onslaught of cyberattacks businesses and institutions will face in the coming decades.

Growing demand for STEM and cybersecurity professionals
A generation raised on technology are now training for and entering the workforce, with more opportunities than ever before to choose from, including in science, technology, engineering and math.

“According to a recent Washington STEM analysis, by 2030, over 40% of family wage jobs in our region will be STEM-related and require a credential past high school,” said Jennifer Veltri, the director of the Northwest Washington STEM Network and the Northwest regional co-director of Career Connect Washington. “Information technology is a key industry of focus where these jobs will reside. Already in incredibly high demand, IT career programming is vitally important to the economic success of the region and a great choice for students wanting a career rich in opportunity.”

According to CyberSeek, a nonprofit that tracks cybersecurity career data, there were more than 28,000 cybersecurity professionals already working in Washington state in the past year, and more than one million across the United States. There were more than 13,500 online cybersecurity-related job openings in Washington and almost 600,000 across the U.S. over the same period. That means there are only enough cybersecurity workers in Washington to fill 74% of the jobs that employers need. The national average is even lower, at 68%. In addition, on average, cybersecurity roles take 21% longer to fill than other IT jobs. The lack of trained employees and the additional effort needed to fill positions cost businesses and municipalities millions of dollars in overhead and lost revenue each year.
Businesses around the country are employing cybersecurity professionals for a range of services. For example, Ferndale-based NW Technology has a team of data security professionals who protect networks from viruses, encrypt email to keep data secure and confidential, and protect company devices.

Meanwhile, community colleges and public and private universities are rapidly developing and expanding their programs to help meet this growing demand.

Whatcom Community College leads the way
“One of the keys to addressing the significant cybersecurity workforce gap is through helping community colleges to start or improve their cybersecurity programs, expand and enhance faculty training and increase program diversity,” explained Corrinne Sande, who leads WCC’s National Cybersecurity Training & Education (NCyTE) Center and is the director of Computer Sciences and Information Systems at the college.

In October, NCyTE received a $1.5 million Microsoft Philanthropies grant for “Accelerating Community College Cybersecurity Excellence” — one of many community colleges across the country that will receive some type of support through the program. In 2021, Microsoft committed $150 million to help U.S. government agencies upgrade protections and expand cybersecurity training partnerships. As a company, Microsoft also has dedicated $20 billion over the next five years to advance its security solutions and protect customer privacy. A large portion of those funds will be spent on the salaries of professionals trained in the programs the company is funding.

In part, NCyTE received this capacity-building grant because of its history of regional and national leadership in the cybersecurity field. For example, in 2011, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security designated WCC as the first National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Two-Year Education on the West Coast. NCyTE is currently funded for the next five years by the National Science Foundation.

“[Our] programs are aligned to national cybersecurity standards and are constantly being updated to current trends and information in cybersecurity that is incorporated into the classroom,” said Janice Walker, special projects director of cybersecurity grants at WCC. “Our faculty regularly participates in workshops and professional development trainings to keep their skills and knowledge current, which means our students are … aligned to current work roles in the field. Grants have funded state-of-the-art labs and equipment. Students participate in internships and capstone projects that expose them to real-world skills. Our students are employed by many local and regional companies, including Amazon, Shell Oil and Puget Sound Energy.”

The Microsoft grant will benefit WCC cybersecurity students such as Bellingham’s Brittany Byrtus, who is a returning adult student looking for a career change.

“I wanted to go into a field where I could specialize and make a difference by protecting my community and potentially the nation,” said Byrtus, who received a competitive federal grant to attend. “I wanted to do something challenging that I could be proud of.”

“There is strong female leadership throughout the Computer Information Systems program and WCC generally,” added Byrtus, who has served as president and now vice president of WCC’s Women in Cybersecurity club. “The professors have a passion for the subjects they teach, and many have real-world experience. The size of classes allows for closer engagement when questions arise. There are also close bonds with other professionals in the community, such as Technology Alliance Group for Northwest Washington, where I did a six-month mentorship with a professional in the industry.”

Byrtus emphasized that the grants WCC has received include tuition and other assistance for low-income students from all walks of life. Her advice to students considering a profession in cybersecurity: “This is a lifelong learning commitment. Technology changes fast. There are many different areas within cybersecurity, so there is something for everyone. Being a person that someone can trust is necessary to work in this area. If you want something with immeasurable opportunities and are willing to put in the work, you will love it!”

Byrtus plans to graduate in spring 2022 and will seek employment in the public sector, perhaps related to her previous volunteer work in disaster preparedness with the Community Emergency Response Team.

At WCC in fall 2021, there were 49 students pursuing a Bachelor of Applied Science in IT networking — cybersecurity and 146 working to earn their Associate of Applied Science in cybersecurity. Students graduating with their B.A.S. earn an average starting wage of about $48 per hour, according to the program. At the moment, all full-time students who meet the minimum eligibility requirements are accepted to the program, which has not yet reached capacity.

Students who earn their A.A.S. can head out into the workforce, stay at WCC to earn their B.A.S., or transfer to other bachelor’s degree programs, including Western Washington University’s cybersecurity program.

Western Washington University cybersecurity programs
Western Washington University’s computer science department has implemented a number of programs that provide opportunities for university students to expand their knowledge and experience in the field of cybersecurity.

In 2016, the department began offering what is called a “2+2” Bachelor of Science degree in cybersecurity (originally called computer and information systems security). This means that students complete their first two years of cybersecurity course work in one of eight partner community college cybersecurity programs in Washington state, including WCC and Bellingham Technical College. Then they are eligible to apply to the WWU cybersecurity major at either the Bellingham or the Poulsbo campus. If accepted, students complete an additional two years of advanced coursework and internships to obtain a B.S.

“We started with just four cybersecurity graduates in 2017, and that grew to 25 students earning a B.S. in 2020,” said WWU cybersecurity program adviser Laura Ghan. “Based on the 2019/2020 Graduate Outcomes Report, about 93% of our cybersecurity graduates were employed within six months after graduation. That’s very high. To give you some perspective, regular computer science B.S. majors are closer to 63%. Cybersecurity majors also earn well. Their median starting salary is $71,492.”

“The rate of employment for these students is pretty much the highest in the university for any of the degrees,” added Erik Fretheim, the director of cybersecurity programs at WWU. “Our cybersecurity students are earning more than a lot of finance and computer science students.”

The WWU program courses extend above and beyond the foundation built at the community college level. “They come to us with a strong foundation that we can build on,” Fretheim said. “We add a lot of breadth to it and a very strong technical depth. We are the most technical cybersecurity program in the state.”

Past WWU graduates have gone on to work for a wide range of medium to large companies, such as Amazon and Premera Blue Cross, and such local employers as NW Technology.
WWU students also can opt for a cybersecurity minor or certificate; both are meant for those who want to complement their degree in another field.

“Any kind of major beyond computer science and cybersecurity can take advantage of these programs,” Fretheim said. “Business, interdisciplinary studies, political science, international relations and environmental science majors are just a few examples.”

Four upper-division classes are required to earn the certificate, which can be completed in a single year — accessible to those earning degrees in less-technical fields.

“Everybody needs to know something about cybersecurity,” Fretheim said. “We’re trying to offer a broad education to as many people as possible. There’s a lot of value in this program even for people working outside of technology.”

A bright future
The demand for professionals trained in all levels of cybersecurity is expected to continue to grow. Colleges, universities and businesses hope that their efforts to train a technologically literate workforce can meet that need.

WCC’s NCyTE has extended its reach into high schools. This fall, the program launched a new Advanced Placement course, “AP Computer Science Principles: Cybersecurity,” developed in cooperation with online teaching platform CodeHS and endorsed by the national College Board nonprofit in summer 2021. As of November 2021, CodeHS reported more than 1,200 students enrolled in the new course across the nation.

WWU, WCC and colleges and universities throughout the country continue to evolve their programs to protect our privacy and keep us safe from the consequences of security breaches. Added Veltri: “The amazing work that Whatcom Community College is doing through their cybersecurity program, as not only a regional but a national hub, is a shining example of how to build programming toward the needs of the emerging economy and think forward toward jobs in the future.” ■