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An Old-school Solution for an Information Age Problem

Photo: ESB Professional /

For many, the concept of an apprenticeship is tied to manufacturing and construction. For me, it reminds me of a book I read in middle school, about a 14-year-old boy working as a silversmith apprentice in 18th-century Boston—but that’s beside the point.

The point is that apprenticeships have long been a source of work-based learning for a variety of trades, and now apprenticeship is entering a new industry: cybersecurity, as Brent Parton, deputy director for the Center on Education and Skills at New America, pointed out at a New America event on Wednesday.

“In the United States, there’s been this broad-based recognition that apprenticeship doesn’t have to be the lone domain of only a couple industry sectors—it can be applicable as a form of learning across a number of industries, like cybersecurity.”

The cybersecurity industry poses a unique opportunity for the development of apprenticeships. It’s estimated that 1.8 million additional cybersecurity professionals will be needed to meet the predicted global shortfall by 2022. With this growing demand, it’s easy to assume that securing a job in cybersecurity is simple, but 37 percent of IT professionals surveyed stated that fewer than 25 percent of all applicants were qualified.

Apprenticeships allow employers to mentor new employees and ensure they have the skills required to succeed in the workplace. But apprenticeships have their drawbacks, as Marian Merritt, lead for industry engagement at the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, stated.

“They’re not a fast-paced solution, as many registered apprenticeships are 18 or 24 months,” Merritt said. “They require a great depth of understanding and commitment from employers. And it’s not a mass-production line. We’re not talking about hundreds and hundreds of people—one employer might have just a few apprentices.”

Perhaps one of the greatest factors preventing more employers from developing apprenticeships is the significant investment required, especially for the small- and medium-sized companies that might benefit most from such programs. Employers have to invest in the apprenticeships not only in the workplace, but in the classroom as well. In order for the development of such programs to take root, intermediaries must serve an important role.

“Companies have to go through a lot to deliver on an apprenticeship, and they need support to start these programs,” Parton said. “Intermediaries can help make the process of developing an apprenticeship and running an apprenticeship much more seamless and lower the transaction costs of rethinking how you do your business.”

Intermediaries can also convene companies from across an industry, identify the shared needs of those companies, and develop the base of an apprenticeship program that still allows for some customization. Debbie Hughes, vice president for higher education and workforce for the Business-Higher Education Forum, stressed the importance of this collaboration.

“We’ve created something we call the strategic implementation process,” Hughes said. “We start with understanding the labor market, and then we bring together executives who oversee talent, and we get them to come together and commonly define their needs. They sit peer-to-peer and competitor-to-competitor because they want graduates to have a baseline set of skills.”

In addition to the impact intermediaries can have, policies can also spur the growth of apprenticeships in cybersecurity.

“The truth is you can’t make companies work together,” Parton said. “But from a policy standpoint, what you can do is create an environment where there are incentives for them to come to the table. We have to look at how we can present apprenticeships as more of a mainstream responsibility both for higher education and the cybersecurity industry.”

Even with the investment required of companies to develop apprenticeship programs, the benefits can’t be overlooked. And providing more resources to intermediaries and incentivising both postsecondary institutions and companies will encourage the growth of apprenticeships in the cybersecurity world.

“Every employer complaining they can’t find the talent they need—they have a vested reason to play in this area,” Merritt said. “The benefits to them—getting talent trained exactly the way they need them, acquiring great employee loyalty—there’s so many positive factors for the employers to participate in apprenticeship programs, that I feel we’re at the edge of a good precipice.”


Catherine Wilson is an events associate at New America, where she supports the production of more than 200 events each year. She interned in the editorial and communications departments at New America before joining as an events associate.