From left, Anil Tailor (Leidos) and Todd Marks (Mindgrub Technologies) discussed challenges and possible solutions for addressing the cybersecurity professional shortage at the Howard County Chamber’s annual Cybersecurity Conference. (TBM / George Berkheimer)

Now in its 13th year, the Howard County Chamber’s annual Cybersecurity Conference turned its attention to workforce development in June. The event was hosted by Howard Community College.

“Everyone is dealing with a labor challenge of some sort,” said HCC president and CEO Leonardo McClarty. “How we address these challenges will affect not only our state’s economic climate, but also the profitability of our employers.”

Information tracks during the event dealt with questions of championing diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace; human relations strategies; organizational culture barriers; and tools and education to help close the digital skill divide and prepare candidates for success.

“No matter what size an organization is today, it needs someone dedicated to cybersecurity,” said Mike Reinhold, CISO of RELI Group, a management consulting firm.

One of the problems he sees with many of the companies he works with is that cyber professionals seldom have opportunities for growth that don’t lead to management or supervision, areas they would prefer to avoid, leading to turnover.

“You want to consider what a career path looks like for cyber professionals, because that’s the organizational and traditional barrier right now,” Reinhold said. “It’s difficult, but there’s plenty of information that can be used to challenge your organization to start considering this.”

Jeffrey Connor-Naylor, director of Business Leaders United, said research indicates upskilling opportunities in general can also help with retention, “to the tune of $25,000 to $78,000 in turnover costs per employee.” 

Confusing picture

The Cybersecurity Conference’s keynote panel took a hard look at some seemingly incongruous developments within the cyber and technology industries, which have resulted in massive layoffs in the tech sector and low levels of unemployment simultaneously.

“One reason for layoffs is that large technology companies do a lot of speculative things and markets move,” said Todd Marks, the founder, CEO and president of Mindgrub Technologies. “At the same time, there are a lot of steady markets [in Maryland] tied to the federal government.”

He also cautioned that increased interest rates might have an unfavorable effect on innovation due to increased borrowing costs.

“Emerging and startup markets are speculative, so we need to make sure we have a support structure for them,” Marks said. “They need access to capital.”

Kelly Schulz, CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, said Maryland tends to fare better than other areas of the country in terms of technology workforce woes because of its proximity to Washington, DC.

“Our cyber job demand is higher than that of California, Virginia, Texas, or Colorado,” Schulz said, and Maryland’s technology workers also earn 123% of the median wage in comparison with other workers.

Still, Maryland’s share of the more than 700,000 unfilled cybersecurity positions throughout the United States amounts to approximately 26,000.

“Demand constantly outstrips the supply of individuals for these positions,” said Anil Tailor, Cyber and SIGINT Solutions Operations Manager for Leidos in Columbia.

Another problem Tailor recognizes is that companies frequently fill their open positions by stealing workers from other employers.

Attracting New Talent

Although cybersecurity offers well-paying jobs, there are challenges to generating interest in the field among young high school students, and recruiters have had to get creative.

“We have video games now that teach you how to be a cyberwarrior and get certification as a result,” Marks said. “We need to figure out pathways to get young people interested, certified, and into programs with a superhighway to careers.”

Historically, Schulz said, it has been difficult to address all demographics with technology courses in schools, and having more female leaders in technology is something that might paint the industry as a safe space for young women to explore.

“Not everyone wants to be considered a techie, either, so you want to make it attractive to a wider range of people,” she said.

Marks is among those who thinks Artificial Intelligence might be able to take up some of the slack.

“It’s good on the detection side of things,” he said. “You can program AI to do repetitive tasks to free up humans to do higher and better use cases of their time. AI does make a lot of mistakes, though, so you have to pair humans and AI together.”

Schulz also thinks apprenticeships could help.

“The idea of nontraditional cybersecurity type apprenticeship programs is kind of new,” she said. “It’s going to take schools and colleges to remind companies that there is a different way to bring employees into the fold.”

It’s also helpful that Maryland’s Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the 2021 law that changes much of Maryland’s public education system, stipulates a cadre of new guidance counselors who will be focused on creating a bridge between high school and specific career tracks by helping students understand things like apprenticeships, internships, and direct communication with business and industry.

“Schools historically have been graded and judged on how many students they send to four-year universities,” Schulz said. “The new focus on direct links to employment … is going to be really important. I think it’s up to the business community to take advantage of that and work with schools so they know exactly where some of the convenient opportunities are for entry level career opportunities.”

Caption: From left, Anil Tailor (Leidos) and Todd Marks (Mindgrub Technologies) discussed challenges and possible solutions for addressing the cybersecurity professional shortage at the Howard County Chamber’s annual Cybersecurity Conference. (TBM /George Berkheimer)