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Nerd Camp! A Solution to the Dwindling Cybersecurity Workforce?

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Growing up, I spent two summers learning physics and archaeology in Southwest Virginia at “enrichment camp.” What is "enrichment camp," you might ask? A playful euphemism employed by my parents to hide where I really was those two summers: nerd camp. Yes, nerd camp. And nerd camp might just be the solution to one of the nation's most pressing job shortages--the increasing demand for well-trained cybersecurity professionals.

Today, the US cannot produce enough computer scientists to fill current job openings. Speaking Thursday morning on a panel hosted by Women in International Security (WIIS), Cynthia Dion-Schwarz of the National Science Foundation (NSF) said this gap between supply and demand is troubling during a time when attacks on the nation’s critical infrastructure are escalating.

The U.S. Cyber Challenge (USCC), a nationwide talent search and skills development program, seeks to close this gap by getting young people excited about cybersecurity. USCC hosts a number of online competitions that offer a way for high school, college, and post-graduate students to compete in cyber-related challenges. Government has been embracing all kinds of challenges and incentives in efforts to cut costs and improve efficiency (see Challenge.gov), but USCC presents a unique public-private partnership that could improve recruitment within the federal workforce.

Contestants, which can range from high school, college, up to post-graduate students—compete in an online competition for a trip to “cyber camp,” a weeklong training experience that includes workshops with university faculty and cybersecurity experts and concludes in the ever-popular “virtual capture the flag” event. The winners of capture the flag receive a signed certificate from the President’s Cybersecurity Coordinator.

Another part of the camp experience includes a job fair, where participants can connect with potential employers. USCC National Director Karen Evans said there is a disconnect on how we’re classifying jobs. Many are hard to find, even if you are looking specifically for cybersecurity jobs. “When you go onto USAJobs.com and type in cyber security, you get 2 or 3 jobs,” she said. Through cyber summer camps, USCC hopes to expose America’s young people to the opportunities available in the field of cybersecurity.

According to Evans, it’s working. “USCC builds on the competitive spirit,” she said. “In the high school competitions we have 20 states participating.” One capture the flag winner attached her certificate signed by former Obama Cybersecurity Coordinator Howard Schmidt to her college applications. The student was accepted on a full-ride to Carnegie Mellon and credits her success to the USCC program.

Though USCC is working to raise awareness and build skills necessary for the cybersecurity workforce, other professions may be facing similar problems.

Is your organization concerned about finding enough skilled workers to fill critical positions? What are you doing to improve recruitment and retention?

Zoe Grotophorst is the Director of Research & Content Services at Government Executive Media Group. She holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the George Mason University School of Public Policy and received her undergraduate degree in public policy from the College of William and Mary.

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