Everywhere I turn, I see headlines and data about cybersecurity workforce shortages and the fear that artificial intelligence (AI) will replace jobs and displace workers. AI is indeed taking the workforce by storm.
The best way to weather that storm will be by addressing it head-on, which is exactly what the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is looking to do. The university recently announced a critical effort to establish a new college dedicated to AI, cybersecurity, and data science. These are all high-demand disciplines in modern digital business that are often in short supply.
UTSA’s president rightly points out that “These disciplines will remain intertwined for the foreseeable future. With an escalating demand for emerging technologies, their applications, and the demand for a skilled workforce, this new college will greatly accelerate UTSA’s economic and workforce impact here in San Antonio, across Texas, and nationally.”
The UTSA students seem to recognize the opportunities in front of them: nearly 6,000 are currently enrolled in AI, cybersecurity, computing, and data science-related degree programs, which is a 31% increase since 2019.
Most universities simply don’t emphasize these domains enough or have programs dedicated to these fields to help address critical shortages and the projected workforce of the future. Case in point: Jack Cable, senior technical advisor at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), wrote in Harvard Business Review how, as a computer science student at Stanford University, he wasn’t required to take any cybersecurity classes. Further, in a recent CISA blog, Cable wrote about the important role the developer workforce plays in producing secure software.
UTSA isn’t alone in its cybersecurity educational efforts; I currently teach as an adjunct professor in the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) master’s in cybersecurity program and have previously taught in Capitol Technology University’s cybersecurity program as well. However, these programs are not the norm, as most universities lack comprehensive cybersecurity and AI-dedicated programs.
Hands-On Labs and Activities
As someone who has been in and around academia for cybersecurity and AI both as a student and a professor, one key distinction is between programs that are primarily theoretical and academic versus others that involve real-world, hands-on exercises and lab activities.
Some universities simply lecture about the concepts of cybersecurity and AI, while others engage students through immersive lab experiences with virtualized infrastructure, guided lab tutorials, and exercises that teach them through doing, versus listening. As any cybersecurity practitioner knows, there’s a big difference between reading about a concept and carrying it out by executing commands, navigating virtual environments, troubleshooting, and more.
Students should be getting hands-on experience with cybersecurity tools for both offensive and defensive purposes and establishing virtual networks while utilizing generative AI and large language model (LLM) platforms to graduate with the real skills required by employers.
There’s nothing against career academic professionals, but there is something to be said for real-world experience, insights, and lessons learned. Universities should be sure to blend their traditional academic staff with those recently, and still actively working, in their respective fields. They bring unique insights — not found in a textbook — that are hard-earned among their technology and business peers dealing with real challenges and threats.
It’s one thing to go through an academic program but often students find themselves asking “what now?” upon graduation. Students often need help navigating the complex and daunting labor market and determining what roles are worth pursuing, where they’re qualified, and what networks they should tap into. Universities can further differentiate themselves by offering job placement and internship programs. Some universities have established relationships with leading technology companies to aid in both job placement and internships for students and offer a conduit for a capable, energetic workforce for employers.
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It’s often said that humans are the weakest link in cybersecurity. Nonetheless, this need not be the case, particularly when fostering a workforce comprised of well-educated and enthusiastic individuals with real-world experience.
Armed with cutting-edge skills in critical fields such as cybersecurity, AI, and data science, new graduates will enter the workforce and help organizations capitalize on technology to drive business value while they mitigate emerging threats from malicious actors.