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That Sixth Grader is a Future Cyber Leader

The hair on my arms was standing up.

I was on the phone with my friend Sam, a cybersecurity expert. I had called him to ask about how students today could enter the field for a feature article I was writing. I wasn’t prepared for what he told me about why the field so desperately needs more workers.

He described a slew of current and potential future threats that sounded like sci-fi thriller plots. Imagine you’re riding in a driverless car, Sam told me, and a voice comes through the speakers telling you it has taken control of your car. The voice demands the passwords to your bank accounts — or else it will speed up your car to 100 miles per hour and force you off the road.  Think about foreign governments hacking into our electrical grid, water supply system, or air traffic control. The same individuals could hold stolen data for ransom, or falsify data for nefarious means, putting multiple government systems at risk.

Sam went on to say that the cost of cybercrime, currently at three trillion dollars per year, is expected to double by 2021, and that there’s an enormous shortage of qualified cyber professionals: there are projected to be over 6 million worldwide job opening by 2019.

This was huge, I thought. We need cyber professionals to fix these problems and stat! Luckily, I work for an organization — Start Engineering — that produces STEM career guides for middle school and high-schoolers, i.e. the future workforce. My conversation with Sam was the impetus for producing our cybersecurity career guide — which is the only career guide designed for young students.

The first thing we discovered: cybersecurity is pretty different from other STEM fields. For one thing, it’s uniquely interdisciplinary, touching upon law, ethics, psychology, business, national security, and more. But the challenge of a new, interdisciplinary field like cybersecurity is that there are a lot of pathways in, but very few people developing a GPS to help students figure out which one to take. That’s where we come in — providing the educational GPS to students at the very beginning of their journey. There are, we discovered, lots of ways that students can get their cyber credentials — through certificate programs right after high-school, associate's degrees at community colleges, or 4-year college degrees. But we couldn’t find anything that helped kids sort out what to do, when, and how.

So we came up with a simple career pathway graphic to show high school students the three educational options for pursuing a career in cybersecurity: certifications, an associate's degree, or a 4-year degree. Each path leads to different careers, opportunities, and salaries. Interested students can easily see which careers follow from which level of education. Of course, a 4-year degree opens up more opportunities for students, including obtaining an advanced degree. And, as we are careful to note, students should understand that 83% of all job postings require one.

Another challenge: while students know what doctors and lawyers do, they may have less of a handle on what a cyber analyst does day-to-day. And thus, they may not think “cyber analyst” when someone asks, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”  We decided to start our guide with with the cyber news events happening all around us. From the election hacking to the "Game of Thrones" breach, we were determined to engage kids by showing how relevant and connected cybersecurity was to their lives, and why we need experts to protect us, our water supply, electric grid, defense systems and more.

While having enough cybersecurity talent is obviously a national security issue, as Sam suggested, we also see the act of making these careers more accessible (and understandable) as a workforce development equalizer. Given the high demand for qualified employees in the field, students from all backgrounds can get well-paying jobs (with huge future career potential) after as little as two years of education. What’s more, the salaries of men and women are nearly equal in cybersecurity careers — an unfortunate rarity in other fields.

If you want to prevent your driverless car from getting hacked, or a future attack on our water supply, here’s one proactive step: hand this guide to a middle-schooler or high-schooler in your life. Who knows what it could inspire.