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New U Of I Degree Program Works To Fill Demand For Cybersecurity Professionals

Courtesy of University of Idaho

Russia’s recent hack of United States government agencies and private companies has brought the spotlight back to America’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

It also brought a spotlight to the reality that the U.S. doesn’t have nearly enough qualified people who work in the cybersecurity field.

The University of Idaho is working to fill the demand with a new bachelor’s degree program.

Three years ago, the research publication Cybersecurity Ventures reported the U.S. needed a million more people working in the broad field of computer security. And it projected that shortage would grow to 3 1/2 million by 2020.

“New technology keeps coming out all of the time. New tools, new software. There is a constant need for somebody to analyze and update these systems. Our adversaries are starting to use more advanced techniques and AI. So we’ve got to constantly get more people out there. It isn’t something like we’ll work really hard for a year and fix the problem and have no jobs anymore. This is going to be a lifetime career, unfortunately," said Jim Alves-Foss, the director of the University of Idaho's Center for Secure and Dependable Systems and a professor of computer science.

Alves-Foss says the U of I has taught security challenges as part of its computer science program for nearly 30 years. He says it had hoped to create a specialized degree program in cybersecurity more than 10 years ago, but along came the Great Recession.

Now the new program is established, but he says U of I graduates have long been making their mark in the industry.

“We even had one who, where did she go? Office of Inspector General, federal Office of the Inspector General. She does audits of every type of system the U.S. government has, the security offices. She’s working on spy satellites. She’s worked on IRS systems. She’s worked on voting machines. Just a wide variety of things," he said.

Credit Courtesy of University of Idaho
Isabel Hinkle is a recipient of a Cybercorps Scholarship for Service, which means she's obliged to work in cybersecurity for a federal agency for a few years after graduation.

One of Alves-Foss’ current students is Isabel Hinkle from Coeur d’Alene. Hinkle is a recipient of a Cybercorps Scholarship for Service, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. For that, she has taken four cybersecurity courses and completed a few other requirements. She’ll earn an academic certificate, in addition to her computer science degree. In return, she’ll has an obligation after graduation.

“You are required to pay back your time working for a federal agency of your choice, wherever you are able to get your full-time position after you graduate," she said.

Hinkle expects to have at least a few job offers after earning her diploma.

“I am most interested in the Department of Navy at sea over in Keyport, Washington. I also am interested in pursuing a career with the three-letter agencies, the NSA, the FBI, the very cool cybersecurity agencies that you see in the movies," she said.

Not all of the students in the program are focused on deep, dark, secretive stuff.

Osama al-Qahtani is a Ph.D student in the program, studying at the U of I campus in Coeur d’Alene.

“I’m trying to focus on building safety applications for autonomous vehicles, related to safety, security, reliability, redundancy, anything related to hazards or traffic information," he said.

After earning his doctorate, he hopes to teach and eventually do consulting work.

Jim Alves-Foss says the U of I’s new cybersecurity degree program has about 15 students, with perhaps three times that many expected to join next year.