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Perspective | Building the cyber workforce pipeline

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Several weeks ago at Blue Ridge Community College’s commencement ceremony, hundreds of students celebrated the completion of programs preparing them to enter diverse industry sectors ranging from health care to manufacturing to education. But graduates of one particular field of study will fill a distinctly critical need across every other professional field. 

Information Technology (IT) and cybersecurity professionals are integral to the way we do business. With the cyber landscape evolving at lightning speed, it is vital that employers and governments have qualified candidates at their fingertips. Every industry has a need for someone who can both secure and defend its technology. 

While a highly skilled cybersecurity workforce is essential to the protection and defense of the country, a persistent shortfall in the number of qualified candidates nationwide has compromised the talent pipeline. According to National Cyber Director Harry Coker, Jr., in North Carolina alone, there are over 18,000 unfilled cybersecurity positions. In other words, our state has more than 18,000 opportunities for rewarding, gainful employment in the respected and growing field of cyber defense.

Increasingly, community colleges nationwide are being called upon to meet this urgent challenge head on, and Blue Ridge Community College is no exception. Since 2022, we have served as a designated national Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education by the National Security Agency of the United States of America. 

Our college is also part of the Carolina Cyber Network, a collaborative cyber workforce development initiative involving 17 higher education institutions that enrolled 2,887 cyber programs students in 2023. Within the network, Blue Ridge has the unique responsibility of providing cybersecurity training around North Carolina’s No. 1 industry — agriculture.

“When it comes to agriculture, most people don’t immediately think about technology, but the truth is, agriculture is full of technology,” Blue Ridge Community College IT Faculty Coordinator Dan Rickert explained. “Tractors, plows, drones that spray pesticide — all of this equipment relies on satellite data and over-the-air updates to software. All of that is vulnerable and can be circumvented by the bad guys.”

In the coming year, Blue Ridge’s IT and cybersecurity students will work closely in the development of the college’s new 4,727 sq. ft. state-of-the-art greenhouse, which will be used for instruction in technology-centered agricultural methods. The greenhouse will be automated and full of sensors, which according to IT instructor Tonya Stephens, provides a real-world opportunity for troubleshooting and safeguarding this critical sector.

“What people don’t think about is that these sensors fall into the ‘internet of things’ — a term referring to computing devices embedded in everyday objects that send and receive data. Often these devices are not very secure,” Stephens said.

Addressing these potential vulnerabilities is an interesting assignment. Our IT students learn how to set up the hardware and software infrastructures that make computer connections happen. Students also engage in “penetration testing,” essentially attempting to hack systems in order to expose areas in need of attention. The students then design and implement solutions.

In addition to being critical to the safety of industry, this line of work can yield a strong financial return for those who plan to enter the field. According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual pay for the cybersecurity jobs category in North Carolina in May was $110,271 per year. 

As part of North Carolina’s workforce solution, Blue Ridge Community College offers a growing array of IT programs and certificates. IT learning pathways provide students with the opportunity to earn degrees, diplomas, and certificates in areas including artificial intelligence, computer programming and development, cybersecurity, network management, and support and services. For learners new to the IT field, the technical support and services pathway provides a fast “in” to the industry with many opportunities for upward mobility.

While technology is certainly integral to cybersecurity work, it does not define it. According to Stephens, students interested in pursuing the field can come from diverse educational backgrounds. 

“One misconception that we encounter is students who think they must be very technically savvy in order to enter this field,” she said. “Our ideal candidate is really someone who likes to solve problems and who likes to learn. What we need are candidates who think creatively.” 

It should come as no surprise that community colleges are serving as the tip of the spear in addressing this national security issue. Community colleges excel at merging academic learning, technical skills, innovative solutions, industry connections, and hands-on applications in real-world settings. In our state’s most critical sectors, we empower individuals with knowledge and skills to enrich our communities and build a competitive workforce.

Laura Leatherwood

Laura B. Leatherwood, Ed.D., is the president of Blue Ridge Community College. Leatherwood was selected as the 2022 President of the Year by the NC Community College System. Prior to Blue Ridge, she served for 17 years in various roles at Haywood Community College. Dr. Leatherwood holds a doctorate degree in university and community college leadership, a master’s degree in human resource development, and a bachelor’s degree in business law, all from Western Carolina University.