Encouraging women, minorities to broaden studies can address shortage of tech workers.
By Tom Risen
Cybersecurity workers are in high demand but short supply — and a panel of tech professionals recently discussed how to get more students interested in that field and to prepare hiring managers to recognize qualified women and minority candidates.
National Security Agency Deputy Director Rick Ledgett said during the “New World Cybersecurity Threats: STEM to the Rescue” discussion at the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference that his agency hires about 1,500 people every year, including 800 from the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. These are selected out of the 90,000 applications the agency receives every year, he said, but the traditional lack of interest in those sciences among women and minorities “limits the pool a little bit.”
“We have a problem meeting diversity and gender numbers,” Ledgett said. “There are not enough people in these pipelines, in these programs.”
The best cybersecurity learning programs are the ones that teach students “to be a little more flexible” in how they approach technology so they can come up with innovative solutions, said Justin Joseph, vice president of talent acquisition at defense contractor Leidos. Encouraging students to pursue internships in computer science is another way to help them learn skills on the job, Joseph said, adding that a major factor Leidos seeks in junior candidates is their “thirst for knowledge.”
“Passion doesn’t just happen; you become passionate about things the more you do it and get better at it,” he said. “Lean in and have them do more, give them more to do.”
Sheila Stewart, a senior systems engineer at MarkLogic database company, said her firm is designing a multiweek pilot program that would give high school and potentially college students the chance to learn the wide range of technologies that could help them enter computer science careers. This program is in its planning stages, she said, and could launch late this year or early in 2017.
Job Training in Tech
Accelerated learning programs are becoming mainstream options to prepare people for tech careers.
“Cybersecurity is an extremely broad term,” she said. “Students need to be able to decipher all the data they have at their fingertips.”
Amanda Mason, director of strategic programs for the intelligence community at MarkLogic, said she draws on her experience with the Air Force to coordinate public and private sector groups to provide “hands on experiences” to students learning cybersecurity skills.
Stewart wants MarkLogic’s pilot program to include an equal number of boys and girls because she knows firsthand that schools need to actively encourage girls to get involved in technology to counter cultural bias. She first encountered gender inequality in STEM during high school, when a teacher responded to her getting the highest score on a calculus test by telling her “it’s not fair — you’re a girl; girls aren’t supposed to be good at math.”
“That statement alone motivated me to get the highest grade every single time,” she said. “We need to push harder to have more women in STEM.”
Teaching students to be inclusive and confident sharing ideas as a team is also necessary for good cybersecurity that will find patterns in attacks and protect the data of companies and customers, Stewart said.
Strong Education and Diversity Key to Global Success
Though challenges differ from country to country, global themes hold true in STEM education.
“In a fast-paced environment you don’t need to do redundant work,” she said. “You can get so much further with everyone focusing on different things if they are working together.”
Joseph said that one solution is to mentor hiring managers and recruiters to recognize the “value and quality of a person” more than their gender or ethnic background.
“I think there are a lot of organizations that are moving in the right direction over time,” Joseph said. “If we keep addressing these things, then 10 years from now we will have a more diverse slate of candidates than we have now.”
The U.S. News STEM Solutions National Leadership Conference is focused on improving America’s science, technology, engineering and math skills. Produced by U.S. News & World Report, the conference highlights STEM issues on a national stage and assembles major corporations, leading educators and top policymakers to find solutions to the STEM crisis. Now in its sixth year, the conference took place May 24–26, 2017 at the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina.