With more than 200,000 unfilled jobs, colleges push cybersecurity

From UMass Boston to Vermont’s Champlain College, institutes of higher education are trying to boost the number of graduates in a field that barely existed ten years ago: cybersecurity. And they’re scrambling to keep up with increased cybersecurity threats.

For the past two decades, David Kaeli has been teaching electrical and computer engineering at Boston’s Northeastern University. Now, a rash of cyber hacks is changing how and what he teaches.

“Security has to be a topic that’s covered, whether you’re teaching a digital design course or you’re teaching a programming language course or an operating course,” Kaeli says. “Where are the holes?”

At Northeastern’s homeland security facility in Burlington, Massachusetts, students are solving actual cyber crimes. The university is offering cross-disciplinary degrees in cybersecurity as well as scholarships for students who serve two or three years in federal, state and local government cybersecurity jobs.

And Kaeli says the university can’t find enough students to fill open slots. “We need to instill in our students an appreciation not just for technologies but also for policy, so the two combined can be much more effective.”

By modest estimates, more than 209,000 cybersecurity jobs in the U.S. are unfilled, and postings are up 74 percent over the past five years.

Still, we’re only now seeing cybersecurity being taught in policy courses.

“I don’t think that we’re even out of the starting block here,” says New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger, an expert on cybersecurity.

In the cave-like basement of Harvard’s Widener Library, Sanger is taping an online course about Iran and national security, which also covers cyber warfare.

“The cyber domain offers all kinds potential sabotage for slowing down programs and for deterring the Iranians from going any further,” he says, looking into the camera.

Sanger enrolled in this course back when he was a student at Harvard in the 1980s. Today, he’s teaching it, drawing from today’s headlines in his lectures.

“The hardest thing about teaching anything about cybersecurity is the same thing that’s the hard part about writing and reporting about cybersecurity, which is, it’s moving so fast,” Sanger explains.

While colleges are offering more courses that focus on how to lock down systems and how to protect against hackers, Sanger says they are not addressing the real problem: there’s no playbook for how nations should deal with cyber threats.

Related: Colleges Targeted for Future Cyber Attacks

“The fascinating thing is that we are learning about this weapon and its effect on the way states interact with each other the same way we learned how nuclear weapons changed the way states interacted with each other during the Cold War,” Sanger says.

In fact, cyber attacks are changing the relationship between the U.S. and China, Russia and now North Korea. Sanger says government should learn from the recent hack into Sony Entertainment’s servers, which released private information and dozens of blockbuster films.

“I think the most interesting thing that you’ll learn from the Sony case is that the major cyber conflicts that we’re heading into may not have to do with turning off the lights and turning off the water and turning off the cell phone systems,” Sanger explains. “They may instead be this odd blur of nations using cyber for coercion to achieve certain goals but to take what in the course we call short-of-war action.”

Sanger says that blur is different even from a few years ago when experts thought cyber was just another form of espionage.

In the end, Sanger says, higher education is not adapting quickly enough to today’s threats, in part, because most faculty have been trained in yesterday’s weapons.

This story comes from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.