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Community colleges are partnering with corporations to bolster cybersecurity offerings.

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When Microsoft recently announced plans to provide cybersecurity instructional training to faculty at 150 community colleges across the country and scholarships and other financial support to 25,000 community college students studying cybersecurity, company officials said the decision was motivated in part by the severe shortage of skilled cyber professionals.

The move was timely -- there are 464,200 open jobs in the U.S. requiring cybersecurity skills -- and the company was widely praised for its ambition. Because it was Microsoft, the announcement also got a lot of attention. But similar, though smaller-scale, efforts were already underway at other community colleges.

LaGuardia Community College in New York City is partnering with Mastercard to provide on-the-job cybersecurity training. Northern Virginia Community College announced in August that it is launching a new information technology apprenticeship program created with AT&T that will provide training and on-the-job experience while bolstering the talent pool for federal customers in the national security sector. MassBay Community College, near Boston, recently launched a Center for Cybersecurity Education, which will offer students cybersecurity internships and projects in partnership with industry partners. More programs are likely on the way as the cybersecurity job market grows and employers’ needs expand with new cyberthreats emerging almost daily.

Microsoft’s cybersecurity curriculum is available to community colleges, and all higher ed institutions, nationwide for free.

Naria Santa Lucia, Microsoft general manager for digital inclusion and U.S. community engagement, said her team recommended the investment in community colleges for a variety of reasons, including that community college student bodies are unusually diverse, students are a mix of part-time and full-time, and community colleges are widely dispersed across the country.

“They are everywhere,” she said. “There’s a baker, a bank and a community college that’s accessible for everybody” in most cities and towns.

There are 1,044 community colleges nationwide, located in every state and territory. Their reach is massive: in 2018-19, community colleges awarded 878,900 associate degrees, 619,711 certificates and 20,700 baccalaureate degrees, according to Microsoft. Forty percent of community college students are Black, African American or Hispanic, which Santa Lucia said was a strong consideration for Microsoft due to its interest in diversifying the cybersecurity workforce.

Santa Lucia noted that the cybersecurity workforce is currently 82 percent male and 80 percent white. She said the program could expand to four-year institutions, but Microsoft intentionally started with community colleges.

In addition to the free curriculum it will provide, Microsoft is giving community college faculty free practice and certification exams, curriculum integration support, and course delivery prep sessions.

The effort will be more extensive at 150 selected community colleges, with Microsoft and project partners helping to train and keep cybersecurity faculty. Microsoft is partnering with the National Cybersecurity Training & Education Center (NCyTE) at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham, Wash., to ensure more community colleges become designated as Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD) institutions, an effort that Microsoft says will support cybersecurity training at nearly 15 percent of the community colleges nationwide. Grants also will be provided to 42 community colleges to accelerate their cybersecurity programs across the next two years.

Corrinne Sande is director and principal investigator at the NCyTE Center at Whatcom. Microsoft contacted her in the spring to help train faculty to teach cybersecurity at other community colleges. She is also launching a cybersecurity boot camp as part of the effort to help diversify the cybersecurity teaching ranks at community colleges by recruiting grad students to teach at community college.

Sande said Whatcom has seen huge demand for cybersecurity training from students.

“Once we started offering cybersecurity,” Sande said, “our enrollments went up an average of 17 percent a year.”

Janice Walker, special projects director in cybersecurity grants at Whatcom, said that community colleges offer companies a chance to draw upon a diverse workforce and are also better equipped to teach the skills needed for cybersecurity jobs -- which typically pay anywhere from $60,000 to more than six figures -- than most four-year schools.

“We are teaching technical skills and hands-on applied skills not available at four-year universities, so students come out knowing how to configure a network and secure a network,” Walker said. “Those are key elements to securing data and information from a cyberattack in a refinery or in a utility such as happened in Texas.”

Microsoft’s initiative also includes support for students who may have financial needs not met by the scholarships provided by the company. Microsoft partnered with the nonprofit Last Mile Education Fund to ensure that students who face emergency expenses such as a car breaking down or a lost job are still able to complete their education.

Ruthe Farmer, founder and CEO of Last Mile, said many STEM students are close to graduating from college but face financial difficulties that preclude them from earning their degrees. She said that while 75 to 80 percent of affluent students graduate, only about 11 percent of the bottom income quartile does.

“It’s foolish to allow someone who has gotten so far to a degree to fail over something like not being able to afford rent or the right tools,” Farmer said. “We provide rapid financial support to make sure these trivial financial hurdles are not blocking the pathway.”

Microsoft is providing $6 million to Last Mile to fund emergency grants and cybersecurity certificate fees for program participants. Students also will receive a free subscription to LinkedIn Premium and training on how to use it to help them close the networking gap and more easily find jobs, Farmer said. Similarly, Github is donating education development tools.

Students participating in the program at LaGuardia Community College will work in paying jobs at Mastercard for two semesters and earn nine credits toward their 60-credit degree. Ten paid apprenticeship spots will be offered to the best students in the first implementation of the program, which will begin next summer. Apprentices will receive mentoring from Mastercard cyber and product experts. The Mastercard program is offered within the school’s Network Administration and Information Security major, which enrolls about 140 students.

“I expect we will be able to attract many more students when we say a company like Mastercard recognizes our talent is ready to work there,” said Dionne Miller, associate dean for academic affairs at LaGuardia. “We’re hoping to change the mind-set of companies like Mastercard, to recognize there is a big talent pool at the community college level that they could tap into to meet their needs and also diversify their workforce.”

Northern Virginia Community College officials created its apprenticeship program with opportunities for federal jobs in mind. Identifying and hiring qualified IT talent has been a challenge for federal agencies, particularly for national security agencies needing employees with high-level security clearances and specific IT skill sets. The new NOVA partnership expands on a similar program AT&T runs at Howard County Community College in Maryland.

Jill Singer, vice president of defense and national security for AT&T Public Sector and FirstNet, said in an email that the apprenticeship program helps AT&T meet two goals: training and nurturing talent with cybersecurity and IT skills and then deploying that talent on behalf of public-sector customers facing increased demand for cybersecurity professionals.

Apprentices work as part-time AT&T employees while also taking classes. The training curriculum is designed to be completed in two years. Students completing the program will graduate with 2,000 hours of on-the-job training in technical, soft skills, lab work and related skills, and will be supported in obtaining relevant industry certifications with the expectation that they will transition to full-time employment at AT&T and support its work for federal agencies.

"These are really good jobs," Santa Lucia, the Microsoft official, said of the cybersecurity field. "We want to develop out the pipeline to make sure all good people can seek out these jobs if they are interested."

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