U.S. and Canadian cyber security organizations are employing event-anchored learning programs featuring competitions that encourage the development of key IT foundation skills

As the world economy continues to climb out of the financial abyss of 2008, there is another looming crisis on the horizon that faces public and private organizations – that being the gap in high skills workforce. The information technology industry in Canada estimates a shortfall of one million skilled workers by 2020, according to statistics published in Career Mash website.

CompTIA’s published study on the “State of the IT Skills Gap”, February, 2012, concluded the following key points:

  • The majority of employers (93 per cent) indicate there is an overall skills gap among their IT staff.
  • Almost 60 per cent of the companies interviewed in the study reported being only moderately comfortable with the level of their IT skills within their organizations. The highest levels of importance was placed on IT foundation skills such as networks, servers, storage, security, database management, and IT support.
  • Almost half (48 per cent) of the respondents sought to improve both the “hard” and “soft” skills gaps such as work ethic, initiative, and customer service.

There are many ways to interpret the results of this study. One is that while the field of IT continues to grow in terms of demand, there is a question of how effective we are as a society in preparing students for the types of IT skills that are most in demand.

One of the current dilemmas facing students who graduate from IT studies is their ability to quickly adapt and ramp up to the demands in the work place. Equally challenging is the degree to which students have been trained to effectively apply their skills, particular the hard and soft skills cited by employers. Finally, there is the challenge of building more awareness and interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations, which are often correlated with IT careers.

In terms of strategically preparing for the challenges that will face Canada’s workforce in the next five to eight years, we need to look beyond the short-term placements of students who are graduating from universities and colleges today – and focus on the high schools and middle schools. This is the generation of skilled professionals that will have the greatest impact on our economy in the next eight to ten years.

What types of programs and education curricula are required to help students effectively adapt their skills to the market demands of the future? How can we help turn students on to the types of jobs that are going to be in demand and fuel their interest in the areas of STEM?

One type of unique teaching method that combines the opportunities for students to apply their skills is called event-anchored learning. In the United States (U.S.), event-anchored learning using cyber competitions is quickly becoming a rapidly growing form of education delivery that effectively engages students at the post-secondary, high school and middle school years.

Event-anchored learning environments bring students, educators, and IT industry professionals together in a collaborative environment that fosters advancements in practices, technologies, and business solutions. They offer interactive, scenario-based events or exercises that help participating individuals develop some of the key IT foundation skills such as networks, servers, and security along with the soft skills of customer service, professional ethics, and communications.

Due to the competitive nature of the programs, they easily attract attention and increase the students’ awareness and interest in the fields of IT.

For sponsors, the competitions themselves are cost-effective ventures that yield a high return on investment by providing employers the opportunity to find potential candidates through observing students’ in action – essentially allowing them to showcase their skills in a practical, competitive, and real-time environment.

The event-anchored programs are focused specifically in the area of cyber security competitions.

The  U.S. supports some of the largest and most popular cyber competitions in the world. One of the largest cyber competition events is CyberPatriot. The National Initiative for Cyber security Careers and Studies (NICCS™) is an online resource for government, industry, academia, and the general public to learn about cybersecurity awareness, education, careers and workforce development opportunities. It is supported and operated by the Department of Homeland Security.

The NICCS provides a rich base of information and intelligence about the various cyber competitions and programs that are being hosted both domestically and internationally. There are over 70 cyber competition events and programs from across the U..S and world that are listed on its Cyber Competitions Repository.

In Canada, we have a program called the Canadian Cyber Defence Challenge (CDC). The CDC is the first event-anchored program of its kind in Canada focused on raising cyber-security awareness amongst Canada’s youth.

The CDC is governed by a team of IT industry professionals representing three primary support organizations: Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS) Manitoba, International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, Inc., (ISC²), Manitoba/Saskatchewan Chapter and ISACA Winnipeg.

Throughout the next several months, members of the CDC executive will be contributing their thoughts and comments on the challenges facing the cyber security skills landscape in Canada. With the growing IT skills shortage, there has never been a better time to shift the paradigm of thinking of how we can effectively attract, prepare, and assimilate our future IT professional workforce.

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