While many employers now are grappling with the tight job market and historically low unemployment rate, one industry in particular is facing a severe hiring shortage. Cybersecurity companies have struggled to find enough good, qualified hires for decades and the situation is only getting worse: By 2020, the industry will have more than 1.5 million unfulfilled positions, according to Harvard Business Review.

"We have a critical shortage of skilled cyber employees because everything we do is now connected to the internet," says Leigh Armistead, president of Hampton, Virginia-based cybersecurity company Peregrine Technical Solutions. 

As a result, some cybersecurity companies are trying to groom the next crop of employees by borrowing a training tactic more common to blue-collar industries like construction and manufacturing: apprenticeships.

Washington has been pushing the apprenticeship model in recent years as a way to close the skills gap in a number of industries. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have made the programs a "pillar of the workforce training strategy," says Tamar Jacoby, president of nonprofit organization ImmigrationWorks USA and think tank Opportunity America. Obama administration directed $265 million toward expanding apprenticeships while the Trump administration so far has authorized $150 million in funding to encourage more industry-recognized programs. The funding has helped boost the number of registered apprentices to half a million in 2017, up 42 percent from 2013, and in non-traditional fields like insurance, nursing, and finance. 

Cybersecurity companies have embraced apprenticeships in part because the training is especially effective in industries where best practices quickly become outdated. The trainees learn, among other tasks, how to manage and defend a network from various security threats, which are constantly changing. Combining both classroom knowledge and practical skills from on-the-job learning is what Jacoby calls the "gold standard" of training. 

As such, it's no small investment: a single certified apprentice can run a company $25,000 to $30,000 dollars a year, which includes the college courses and a wage.   

But companies say the investment is worth it because of the employee loyalty it fosters. "They've been part of your culture for two to three years," says Armistead. "The idea is they're going to stay."

That's what Keith Kregg, vice president at Innovative Systems in Raleigh, North Carolina, is betting. He says competitors have been "cherry picking" the company's employees as soon as six months after they're hired. As a way to preempt the job hopping, six years ago the company decided to develop an apprenticeship program to help grow talent in-house. The first cohort with five apprentices launched in 2015; this year all five will receive full-time offers with salaries upwards of $80,000. (Entry-level salaries without the training range from $60,000 to $65,000.) 

In Mount Pleasant, South Carolina,  Girish Seshagiri, vice president of ISPHI, which provides cyber services for the government, has found a way to make apprenticeships more affordable at scale.

In 2013, Seshagiri partnered with two other small companies--a credit union and manufacturer--and community colleges in Illinois to develop a joint apprenticeship program with a curriculum modeled after Carnegie Mellon's. (ISHPI's software team is based in Peoria, Illinois.) The group launched the first cohort two years later with seven apprentices. The model "will be applicable for the smaller employers, so they can come together," he says. "None of us is big enough to have [our own] class of 15."

The model is cost-effective: ISHPI's apprentices earn $12.50 per hour plus mentorship and lodging. The companies collectively decide on college curriculum, wages, competency standards, and how to interface with government agencies.

In general, apprenticeships are "a big undertaking for the employer," says Jacoby. In addition to the costs and logistics, white-collar employers and potential apprentices often also have to overcome the perception that apprenticeships lead to blue-collar occupations, she says.

Still, if the talent gap continues to widen, these programs are going to become more appealing. "Many employers are seriously worrying where the next workers are going to come from," she says. "If your job has some skill attached to it, you're thinking about who's going to train them--so it's possible that more white-collar companies will go there."

Published on: Oct 16, 2018