When Alex Levinson graduated near the top of his class in January 2009 from Heald College in San Francisco, carrying an associate's degree in computer networking with a concentration in information security, he fielded a surprisingly large number of employment offers in a US economy that was on the fast track to the worst recession in more than 70 years.
Most of the offers were for positions like system or network administrator, decent entry-level posts for someone interested in IT.
Levinson gave each some thought, but ultimately decided that a nine-to-five job wasn't for him, not yet at least. “There were reasonable offers at the time,” Levinson, now 22, says. “But I just felt like I needed more.”
Months removed from the start of the financial crisis, the opportunities thrown Levinson's way were telling of an industry in desperate need of young, motivated and highly skilled information security professionals, especially as organisations rely on computer networks in levels never thought possible.
|Local analysis: InfoSec rookies lack the basic skills|
Positions in information security fall under the STEM (science, engineering, technology and math) umbrella. These fields, according to the US Department of Commerce, are paid higher than other industries, are less likely to experience joblessness and are essential to the nation's competitiveness. Yet, studies show that fewer students are choosing to major in these areas, and the ones who do take longer to graduate.
Experts have attributed this to a number of factors, among them the belief that more and more IT jobs will be outsourced, a prevailing attitude among adolescents that science is too difficult a discipline on which to concentrate, a failure by high schools to adequately prepare pupils for these courses at the next level and a lack of understanding by colleges to place an emphasis on STEM student research, collaboration and support – rather than mere survival in class tracks known for their dog-eat-dog style of competition.
A profession, challenged
Security faces a more uphill climb than other STEM-related fields. According to a 2010 report from the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, there are only about 1000 individuals in the US with the specialised security skills to defend cyber space, both at the public and private level.
There needs to be at least 10,000.
Despite the rise of government-recognised National Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education, which exist at more than 100 colleges across the country, many institutions treat security as a subset of a computer science degree.
“I think modern security education is so new that it's still in a rapidly evolving phase,” says Mark Stamp, an associate professor at San Jose State University in California.“Just a few years ago, most graduates from computing-related programs would never have had a security course. Today, I don't know what the exact percentage is, but I'm sure it's more than half. And that number certainly is growing.”
Yet, while more colleges and universities seem to recognise the need to offer courses related to information security, many curricula appear to be a hodgepodge of subject matter, proof that academic institutions still don't consider the discipline worthy of standalone status.
“Because it's a new and unsettled part of the curriculum, a lot of different things are taught in security courses,” Stamp says. “Having written a book, I've spent quite a bit of time looking at various courses. The material taught varies widely – from high-level managerial platitudes to hardcore cryptography and everything in between. That is, security is often not treated as a coherent topic in its own right.”
This is a systemic weakness, Stamp says, that may be impacting the amount of skilled human capital making its way from lecture halls into the server room.
“I believe that computer science students should have an in-depth understanding of security, not just a surface-level overview,” he says. “The computer science students of today will be building the world's critical infrastructure of tomorrow, and security mistakes can be costly. We don't let people design bridges unless they know what they're doing.”
Some educators have pushed for colleges to offer more specific courses in security that not only home in on a specialty topic, but break down the taboo that instructors cannot teach certain lessons. In particular, George Ledin, a computer science professor at Sonoma State University in California, wants more schools to offer classes that centre on a tactical understanding of malware, and go beyond regurgitating an oral history of malicious code.
This, however, often is stymied by underpaid, overworked professors who may not be as familiar with more narrow computer science topics and may be discouraged to ask students to think like a criminal. But Ledin says instructors must get past this.
“Let's suppose you're going to a medical school,” Ledin says. “You're going to learn everything about the worse possible diseases. Likewise, if you're a law student, you would benefit from learning how to break contracts. We need to know how to program malware in order to anticipate what people in the shadows are doing. If hackers can do it, why can't computer science graduates do it?”
Next: Healthy competition