Guest Post: Cyber Attacks are a Daily Threat to New Jersey. We Must Develop Homegrown Talent.

Cybersecurity has never been more vital for the safety of our nation and to protect New Jersey residents, yet the unmet need for skilled cybersecurity professionals nationally and locally is at an all-time high.

This year alone, damage inflicted globally by cybercriminals is predicted to reach $6 trillion, with that figure expected to top $10 trillion annually by the year 2025. These predictions follow a record number of data breaches and cyber-attacks in the year 2020 according to noted cybersecurity expert Chuck Brooks, president of Brooks Consulting International.

The threat of a devastating cyber security attack remains present across New Jersey. This past February, Newark’s University Hospital notified consumers that an unauthorized individual gained access to the hospital’s computer systems and potentially patients’ personal information. In May, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora announced the launch of a renewed cybersecurity training program for employees in response to a cyberattack that used fake email addresses and URLs to closely mimic official city accounts. Elsewhere in the state, school districts in Somerset County were also the targets of cyber attacks that caused school closures.

These attacks are not exclusive to New Jersey, with the Federal Trade Commission tracking a steady rise of fraudulent activity since 2017. In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline, the largest pipeline system in America, was the victim of an attack that resulted in a $4.4 million ransom payout. 

A 2020 study by Emsi, a national labor analytics firm, found that the demand for cybersecurity professionals is twice as great as the supply in the job market. Despite a critical need for talent, and competitive salaries awaiting cybersecurity professionals, widespread vacancies remain. In 2019 there were still 314,000 unfilled positions, according to Cyber Seek, a project supported by the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE), a program of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in the U.S. Department of Commerce, with estimates of 3.5 million unfilled jobs worldwide by 2021.

The situation is so dire that President Joe Biden recently identified the challenge of addressing cybersecurity as a national priority. He signed an executive order to modernize the nation’s cyber-defenses and improve cybersecurity with the intent to fill an estimated half million vacancies in public and private cybersecurity jobs. The need for this talent and expertise will only increase with time.

New Jersey 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 Newark is one such organization that offers training and access to employer networks to individuals often excluded from tech careers.

To establish consistency of program quality for higher education institutions, the National Centers of Academic Excellence in Cybersecurity program, managed by National Security Agency’s National Cryptologic School, bestows designations and accreditations based on rigorous standards.  Western Governors University (WGU) is one such institution designated a National Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense (CAE-CD) for its validated degree program in the Bachelor of Science in Cybersecurity and Information Assurance (BSCSIA), which includes 14 industry-recognized certifications such as CompTIA, ITIL and ISC2. Other New Jersey colleges and universities with the CAE-CD designation include Princeton University and Rutgers University, among others.

This designation is given to institutions that promote higher education and research in cyber defense and provide a direct pipeline of qualified professionals into the workforce, resulting in a decrease in threats to the National Information Infrastructure.

Every day, hackers and cyber criminals launch new, sophisticated computer viruses, malware and scams that threaten the data our society relies upon. We must rise to the challenge of better protecting invaluable data at top organizations and by creating talent pipelines that connect those organizations with homegrown candidates in New Jersey.

We have seen first-hand the devastating effect cybercrimes have in New Jersey, which serve a key role in national security efforts with offices for the FBI and IRS, among other federal and state agencies. It is time for New Jersey’s colleges and universities to ensure that we are doing everything possible to support efforts to prevent crimes of this magnitude from occurring ever again. Those efforts start with access and affordability and continue with programs that meet the highest standards in the nation.

Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a nonprofit, accredited university focused on competency-based learning that serves more than 1,400 students and 2,400 alumni in New Jersey. A resident of Weehawken, she is general secretary of Digital Inclusion Practitioners of New Jersey (DIPNJ) and holds a doctorate in higher education leadership from Ohio University.

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