WATERVILLE — Thomas College will receive $974,000 in federal money to expand its cybersecurity program and help more students gain a foothold in a fast-growing field.
The funding is part of $10.2 million earmarked for Maine colleges and universities, and workforce development programs, from the massive omnibus spending bill approved by Congress last month.
The money Thomas will receive will be used in several ways, including tuition assistance, scholarships, technology upgrades and professional development for staff and students, according to college Provost Thomas Edwards.
“We’re all impacted, we all rely on security,” Edwards said. “It’s just like the electricity and the other kinds of infrastructure that we have, we just have to invest in infrastructure and we have to invest in the knowledge, so that we have good people who are educated who can keep up with the pace of the technology and the change.”
Frank Appunn, a cybersecurity professor at Thomas College, said that as technology has advanced, it creates more value for companies, but also new risks. Cybersecurity is the work of minimizing those risks and defending that value, he said.
“Technology enables us to deliver more better and new things at more affordable prices,” Appunn said. “However, when we use technology, we also introduce new risks. So as technology creates value, we must also defend from the abuses that can happen from technology.”
Cybersecurity experts are needed in several different sectors of the economy: businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, schools, hospitals and more. Criminals can use malware to stop business or steal personal data, and sometimes it’s unexpected information that they are looking for. Things like the name of a young child who has never opened a bank account, Appunn said, whose identity can then be used for money laundering.
And as the use of technology across industries grows — especially since the pandemic has forced many into remote or hybrid work — the demand for cybersecurity knowledge is high.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median pay for an information security analyst in 2021 was $102,600, and job openings for these workers is expected to increase 35% over the 10-year period ending in 2031, much higher than the average job increase of 5% over the same period. About 19,500 openings for information security analysts are projected each year until 2031.
“We know that these are high-paying jobs, we know that these are high-paying careers, and we also know through the experience with COVID, that the ability to operate in a hybrid or online environment, a tech-rich environment, is going to be really, really crucial to the economy of the future,” Edwards said. “So by looking at students that we serve, and providing them a direct pathway into a really high end, career path, we think that this is a win for everybody.”
Appunn said the college has relationships with several companies that have offered jobs to cybersecurity graduates, and the college could easily place twice as many students just with those companies.
“Corporations are struggling to find cyber-skilled people,” Appunn said.
The Thomas College program is designed to be available to students of any background, Appunn said. The university now offers a bachelor’s and master’s degree in cybersecurity, a master of business administration with an emphasis on cybersecurity, and a certificate for advanced study.
Appunn has been involved in developing the program since it began in 2013, and part of the curriculum goal is to provide a broad education that allows students to walk away with not only the technical skills, but also the communication and business skills.
Take Danielle Demillo, for example. She studied criminal justice at Thomas and found herself working at a bank, doing physical security, focusing on money laundering. But she found her company, and the financial industry, were seeing more and more digital attacks. She had the opportunity to do some technology-related work and enjoyed it.
Although she didn’t have a computer science background, she decided to get a master’s degree in cybersecurity at Thomas. She had to do some upfront studying on her own, to be able to keep up with the technical skills, but graduated with her degree in 2020, and just a few weeks later found a higher level job.
Now she works as an assurance practice manager at Tyler Technologies, managing people who test security systems for clients to find weaknesses. She said Thomas’ classes prepared her for her role, where she needs the technical know-how but also has to manage people and handle a budget.
“Even if it didn’t teach me everything, it taught me how to think, how to figure things out, which is huge,” Demillo said. “It’s not just the material, it’s how to use the skills to figure out things that you don’t know, which I think was my big takeaway from the program — it’s been a literal game changer for my career.”