Virginia Tech aims to fill cybersecurity jobs gaps
The U.S. Department of Defense in January awarded Virginia Tech a $1.5 million grant to prepare students for careers in cybersecurity — a field facing a critical shortage of skilled professionals.
The need for a pipeline of skilled cybersecurity professionals is regularly emphasized whenever a major hack is uncovered. In December 2020, news of the SolarWinds breach broke. Computer hackers believed to be working for Russia’s intelligence service compromised networks belonging to corporations and several federal agencies.
“The news very recently has pointed out how vulnerable we are,” says Laura Freeman, a research associate professor of statistics in Virginia Tech’s College of Science and principal investigator on the grant.
Students who graduate with the skills needed to protect agencies and corporations from cyberthreats are practically guaranteed to be snapped up by hiring managers. More than 58,000 cybersecurity jobs are currently open in Virginia, according to CyberSeek, a website that provides data about the industry.
At Virginia Tech, the DOD grant is funding experiential learning projects, curriculum development and research opportunities in cybersecurity. This semester, 36 students are working on five projects focused on embedded-systems security and protecting small satellites.
Faculty members designed the projects to fill gaps in critical workforce skills identified by the DOD and the National Security Agency, says Ehren Hill, associate director for education and outreach at the Ted and Karyn Hume Center for National Security and Technology at Virginia Tech. The new program builds on Virginia Tech’s relationship with the NSA, which named the university a Center for Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations in 2017, a designation it will hold through 2022.
The goal of the new program, Hill says, is to “increase the students’ skills and abilities in machine learning, in data science, in both defensive and offensive cyber operations, skills and background.”
Along with Virginia Tech, the DOD awarded grants to five other universities with military programs: Virginia Military Institute, South Carolina’s The Citadel, the University of North Georgia, Texas A&M University and Vermont’s Norwich University.
Freeman is optimistic that many of the students who participate in the program will go on to serve their country as cybersecurity professionals, either in the military or the private sector.
“What we’re hoping to convince them of is that careers in the federal government — the DOD in particular — are so impactful and interesting that they want to go there,” she says.