My commitment to closing Canada’s cyber skills gap

two students on a computer in a classroom learning new cybersecurity skills

Written by Kevin Dawson, ISA Cybersecurity’s President and CEO. Original article on LinkedIn.

I was delighted to see the University of Guelph highlight the presentation of scholarships to four women in the school’s cybersecurity program. This story caused me to reflect on ISA Cybersecurity’s continuing support for cybersecurity education in Ontario.

I strongly believe that academic and industry collaborations play a critical role in advancing cybersecurity to protect all Canadians. To this end, ISA Cybersecurity has forged strong ties with post-secondary education institutions over the years. Wherever I can – either personally or professionally – I try to give back and share the experiences that I’ve had over decades in the cybersecurity arena, while I continue to learn from some of the brightest minds in the field.

Bigger picture, I think it’s essential for ISA Cybersecurity to do our part to address the cyber skills shortage. The 2020 (ISC)² Cybersecurity Workforce Study reported that the global cybersecurity workforce gap decreased for the first time – but that “gap” still remains a chasm, estimated at 3.1 million unfilled jobs. And note that 56% of respondents to the report point out that staff shortages are putting their organizations at risk. That risk can be existential, with compromised businesses suffering devastating financial and reputational losses.

Further, I recognize that women in cybersecurity are still sorely under-represented. The same (ISC)2 report found gender disparities in every region around the world, with North America faring the worst, with just 21% of the workforce represented by women.

Our work with several post-secondary institutions in Ontario is helping to address all of these issues:

University of Guelph

One of our key partnerships is with the University of Guelph. ISA Cybersecurity and others have supported the creation of a cybersecurity teaching lab and a Security Operations Centre at U of G. And we’ve been involved in providing guidance, financial support, and student scholarships for U of G’s Master of Cybersecurity and Threat Intelligence (MCTI) program from its inception.

My colleague Dave Whittle, Associate Vice-President and CIO at the University of Guelph, describes the program which saw its first students in September 2019: the MCTI “is a unique, cutting edge program that offers professionals the potential for a dynamic career in cybersecurity, cyber threat intelligence and digital forensics within the Canadian or global landscape. Graduates of this hands-on program become leaders in security analysis and design, threat intelligence, Security Incident and Event Management (SIEM), intrusion prevention, malware analysis, penetration testing, cryptography engineering and digital forensics,” all of which are hot commodities in today’s job market.

I am honoured to be a member of the University of Guelph’s advisory board, working closely with others in academia and industry, to help shape the program. Dave explains that the board “consists of high-level industry executives who are known for their exceptional stature and commitment to the cybersecurity community in Canada. The contributions by our board are crucial to our continued success and future of our program… Board members like Kevin help us define and implement our strategic vision for the program. On top of Kevin’s contributions, ISA Cybersecurity was the first industry partner to establish two scholarships for our students (one scholarship is awarded to a female student and one to a male student).” Historically, the University of Guelph has been a leader in encouraging women to participate in STEM disciplines. The MCTI program at U of G attracted 38% women in its inaugural cohort.

Schulich School of Business at York University

I’m also honoured to serve in an advisory capacity at York University. In addition to supporting the CIO with security guidance for the university itself, we support projects for the Schulich Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence (MMAI) program which was launched in 2019. Neelam Verma, Director of Strategic Partnerships with Schulich, describes the genesis of the program: “Artificial Intelligence is undergoing a landmark evolution, transforming the private and public sectors. As organizations adopt and invest in AI technology, a new style of management is needed – one that pairs a leader’s vision with a scientist’s mastery over a growing body of specialized knowledge. We launched the 12-month MMAI program to meet this growing need and to produce talented students with the skills and advanced applied knowledge to develop, evaluate, refine, and implement AI-related applications and technologies. With the digital transformation the world is going through, cybersecurity has become very important in today’s business environment, and our program prepares students with both the technical and business skills to take on these real-world challenges.” 

In support of the program, ISA Cybersecurity is hosting an upcoming Artificial Intelligence consulting project. We are bringing in 3-4 Schulich students to work on exciting machine learning / big data research that will help us be more efficient and effective in preventing cyber attacks. This cutting-edge technology will help keep our customers safe, and contribute threat intelligence and insight to the global fight against cybercrime.

And Schulich demonstrates an outstanding track record of attracting women to cybersecurity careers. In 2020, 46% of students registered in the MMAI program were women, reflecting the school’s commitment to “gender diversity and a robust recruitment process [that gives] equal opportunity to women across the world,” Neelam observes.

Collegiate Programs

ISA Cybersecurity is just as active on the collegiate level as well – we find that supporting these programs helps provide students with the hands-on, practical experience that helps them hit the ground running when they start their careers. We have been delighted with the quality of the co-op students from the Honours Bachelor of Applied Information Sciences (Information Systems Security) program at Sheridan College and the Honours Bachelor of Technology – Informatics and Security program at Seneca College over the years. More recently, I have had the privilege of joining the advisory board for cyber programs at Centennial College. Centennial is exploring the introduction of co-op to the cybersecurity program in 2021, and we will be at the front of the line to hire students.

Since 2015, we have employed 3-5 co-op students annually from these programs. Just one of our success stories is Sausha Mohammadi. A graduate of Seneca College, Sausha joined our CIOC as a Level 1 Cybersecurity Analyst after two productive work terms with us. “I would absolutely recommend the co-op program. It gave me a sneak peek and real-life insight into my career path,” says Sausha. “I’ve had an amazing experience at ISA Cybersecurity thus far. The team dynamic and camaraderie is the most attractive part of working here.”

Of course, we are always delighted when graduates choose to stay with ISA Cybersecurity and join our growing family, but we are genuinely grateful even if they move to other challenges, as we’ve done our small part to encourage another person to help in the fight against cybercrime.

We all have a part to play

Cybersecurity is an area of strategic importance for many industries, and a 2016 Deloitte report called Canada the fourth-largest cybersecurity hub in the world (trailing only the United States, Israel, and the United Kingdom). We must maintain that global leadership role.

I urge post-secondary schools to continue developing cybersecurity training programs and certifications, implementing co-op programs wherever possible. Every cybersecurity provider can, and should, contribute to addressing the global skills shortage we all face: I encourage my fellow industry and cybersecurity leaders to deepen their support for established and emerging academic programs alike. And we must all do our part to encourage women to get involved in cyber – without equal representation and diverse perspectives, we cannot be as effective in defending against cyber threats.

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