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The threat of a devastating cybersecurity attack | OP-ED

A shortage persists cybersecurity job openings in the U.S. With more than 22,500 vacancies just in Pennsylvania alone, the option is training black, Latina and native American women in cybersecurity.

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Cyberattacks continue to target our major employers, government offices, healthcare systems, and utility infrastructure. In 2021 alone, cybercrime damage cost businesses in the U.S. more than $6.9 billion, according to noted cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks, president of Brooks Consulting International.

The threat of a devastating cybersecurity attack remains present locally and across the commonwealth. Thankfully, in one incident, the state treasurer and Delaware County district attorney were able to recapture a significant amount of the $13 million in state aid taken from the Chester Upland School District through a complicated, multi-faceted scheme. Yet in another sector, a ransomware network security breach granted access to personal and medical information for more than 75,000 individuals who are part of Pennsylvania’s largest primary care group.

Our problem in combating cybercrime is that organizations cannot protect themselves without a talented workforce trained in cybersecurity. Despite the critical need for more talent, a workforce shortage persists at an alarming rate: there are more than 700,000 cybersecurity job openings in the U.S.—including more than 22,500 in Pennsylvania alone.

If solving this problem were as easy as offering competitive salaries, there wouldn’t be a shortage. There is a lot to be done to fill these vacancies, but one solution is to support and encourage populations who might not otherwise think to enter the IT field to do so. For example, Black, Latina, and Native American (BLNA) women represent approximately 16 percent of the total US population, yet they make up only 4 percent of students obtaining bachelor’s degrees in computing. By training and preparing BLNA women to pursue a career in cybersecurity, we are not only alleviating this shortage, but introducing fresh, qualified talent into our workforce.

Nationwide, only 25 percent of tech graduates are women, with a dropout rate of 37 percent for tech classes compared to 30 percent for other programs. If this trend continues, the number of underrepresented women of color receiving computing degrees will not double until 2052—by which time they will represent an increasingly vanishingly smaller proportion of all graduates. 

To increase the number of BLNA women pursuing cybersecurity, we need to show them that we want them in this field and will provide the support they need to get here. Pennsylvania is home to multiple organizations focused on no-cost, entry-level training and career pathways for those considering a career in cybersecurity. For example, Per Scholas in Philadelphia is one such organization that offers training and access to employer networks to individuals often excluded from tech careers.

Western Governors University (WGU) is providing support to BLNA women pursuing cybersecurity: Reboot Representation Tech Coalition, a group of 21 leading tech companies that are committed to doubling the number of BLNA women receiving computing degrees by 2025, recently awarded the university a Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers for Women in Tech grant of nearly $1 million dollars to significantly increase the number of BLNA women receiving undergraduate information technology degrees at WGU by 2025.

While 61 percent of WGU students are women, the university’s BLNA enrollment in its College of Information Technology closely resembles the national average. Through the Building Bridges and Breaking Barriers for Women in Tech grant, BLNA women at WGU will have expanded access to peer and coaching support, admissions process support, leadership development training, and financial aid grants in their pursuit of baccalaureate IT degrees. To find out more about becoming a student via the grant support, visit http://www.wgu.edu/b4women. 

Every day, hackers and cyber criminals launch new, sophisticated computer viruses, malware, and scams that threaten our society. Pennsylvania is increasing its efforts to contain attacks and this year passed legislation to enable the National Guard to respond in the event of a cyberattack on a vital computer system. But we are still facing the mounting need to protect systems and users from the devastating effects of cybercrimes.

We must rise to the challenge of better protecting invaluable data and of creating talent pipelines with homegrown candidates in Pennsylvania.

WGU recognizes the urgent need to provide more BLNA women access to industry-relevant technology education to prepare them for thriving-wage, in-demand careers in the technology sector. Doing so not only helps them to support their families but also will be a positive step to protecting Pennsylvania businesses and residents from cybersecurity attacks. 

(*) Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU). 

Dwana Franklin-Davis is the CEO of Reboot Representation.

 

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