We’ve all seen news of large companies and even global infrastructure providers experiencing data breaches, information leaks, ransomware attacks, supply chain disruptions, and other destructive cybercrimes. Hackers leave no one unscathed from the federal government to the private sector and multimillion-dollar companies to local mom-and-pop businesses. These cybercriminals wreak havoc on medical providers, financial and educational institutions, technology, and media firms, and for small businesses, weathering such an attack may mean the difference between staying afloat or closing their doors. In fact, according to a June 2022 article in FORBES magazine citing statistics from betanews.com, cybercriminals can currently penetrate 93% of company networks.
The internet, accurately termed the “modern battlefield” by many, is increasingly critical for daily survival both in and out of the business realm. As such, the demand for digital warriors is growing exponentially. According to a 2019 article published on the CIO Drive, the cybersecurity workforce is estimated at 2.8 million people with a 0% unemployment rate. The article also notes that the global security workforce needs to grow 145% to meet the surging demand. With an average global salary starting at $69,000 +, available jobs are high paying for those with the right set of skills.
Northland Pioneer College (NPC) is one of only a handful of colleges in Arizona that helps students learn those necessary job skills. NPC offers associate degrees in cybersecurity, computer information systems, and software and web development. Helping to grow these “digital warriors” of the future, courses in the programs are offered online and an advanced learning lab is located at NPC’s Show Low campus.
This past spring, four NPC students applied to and were accepted into paid externships through the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation (The Foundation). The two-week externships were offered in either cybersecurity or IT and were born out of an effort to improve Arizona’s cybersecurity and technology ecosystems. Their externships offer practical, real-world experience through project learning, education, and exposure to cybersecurity and IT careers by connecting potential employees with employers and other professionals currently working within the field.
According to Ben Sandoval, manager of career services at NPC, it was a good opportunity for students to get hands-on learning. “It checked so many boxes,” he said. “Because it was 100% online, it was a great opportunity for our rural area. Not only were the students able to learn about the industry, but they were able to work on a project with a real deliverable that they can now list on their resumes and show to future employers. It allowed them to work on real-world issues with people who are in the industry” he explained. “New college graduates can get frustrated when employers want candidates with both education and experience. This is an opportunity for students to get some of that experience,” noted Sandoval. The students were paid a stipend as they completed the program and because it was held virtually, it offered NPC students convenience and flexibility. Additionally, you didn’t have to be a CIS major, and participants in the program ranged from high school students to older adults looking to re-enter the workforce. The program gave participants momentum to get into the field, open doors, and expand on skills like resume building, interviewing, and presentations. “Something like this helps people take the next step,” Sandoval explained. “It’s a great start for someone interested in exploring cybersecurity or IT as a career.”
The NPC students who participated in the program this past spring couldn’t agree more. David Aberle is a recent graduate of NPC and will be pursuing his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arizona beginning this fall. He plans to pursue a career in cybersecurity. “It was a great opportunity,” he said. “Picking the brains” of industry leaders and partners (which included companies like Carlisle, Common Spirit, Charles Schwab, E-Bacon, JP Morgan, and even the state of Arizona’s Department of Homeland Security, among others) was Aberle’s favorite part. He explained, “they presented their needs in the cybersecurity world, and it was an eye opener to know what areas we needed to focus on in our studies as we enter the field.” As part of the externship, Aberle worked with a group of other participants to complete a final project. It was up to the students what to present. Aberle’s group focused on social engineering. Salt River Project (SRP) was his group’s industry mentor for the project. “We decided to pen test one of SRP’s own generating stations,” explained Aberle. A penetration test (pen test) is used to evaluate a system’s security and is an authorized simulated attack on a computer system to identify and analyze weaknesses in a system using the same tools, techniques, and methods an attacker would. “Their networks and systems are pretty tight,” Aberle admitted. However, Aberle and his group were able to provide valuable information on areas with breach potential within the company. “SRP was pretty impressed with what we did. It was awesome to have that kind of guidance and encouragement,” Aberle said.
For fellow participant Isaac Garcia, the program’s stipend of $350 and the opportunity to meet industry leaders from so many different companies were key motivators for him to apply for the externship. Garcia plans to graduate from NPC this coming fall and noted, “it was a great opportunity to make contacts and connect with people in the industry.” He explained “many of the externship participants were from different stages of life and it was cool to see how diverse the people were that are interested in going into the field. They weren’t all new students.” He said, “Maybe a third of the participants, maybe even half, were not high school or even first-year college students.” That was encouraging for Garcia. He said, “It helped me feel like a career in cybersecurity was a real possibility. Like I can really do this. A lot of the people were career changers and from a variety of different backgrounds. That helped me realize that the field is wide open to a lot of different skill sets and different types of students.”
Early high school graduate and externship participant, Kavya Bhatt aspires to secure the digital world. A recent transfer from NPC, she is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity at the University of Phoenix. After previously considering a career in law enforcement, she decided to combine her passion for technology with her desire to keep society safe. “Now I can be a cyber cop,” she laughed. Bhatt joined the externship eager to learn what skills and qualifications would help someone enter the cybersecurity workforce. “Through this experience, I learned the impact that creativity, communication, and visionary leadership have in the technical realm of cybersecurity,” Bhatt explained. She loved learning from diverse perspectives and indicated that it “increased her curiosity even more. A diverse group is where innovation thrives,” she explains. “A wide range of Skittles can help us identify reasonable solutions to known and unknown problems. But when it's only a bag of blue M&M's, we are limiting our potential," says Bhatt. “I would highly recommend this program to anyone looking to get a glimpse at the industry to decide whether or not it’s right for them.”
NPC’s Ben Sandoval echoed that recommendation,“networking and learning more about your career interest and what the pathway options to it are, is one of the reasons NPC Career Services encourages students to complete internship or externship opportunities. By combining quality education with opportunities like these, NPC sets students up for success.”
According to Ngan Pham, the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation’s IT and Cybersecurity workforce development manager, the externship program was created by the Foundation’s IT and Cybersecurity Workforce Collaborative as an initiative to strengthen the talent pipeline for business and industry leaders in Arizona. Employers came to the Foundation looking for a way to reach potential employees. “The employers were really excited about it,” said Pham. Our spring externship program had 53 externs and 18 employers. Resume building, LinkedIn workshops, mock interviews, and mentorship opportunities were paramount to the program. “Our goal is to help career seekers navigate Arizona’s cybersecurity and technology ecosystems and build professional relationships with employers. We are tightly focused on helping externs secure employment and for companies to find talent with the right skills. By the end of the program, we saw many externs walk away with internships and job offers,” she said. “It's exciting that employers want to expand this kind of talent development. The Foundation remains steadfast in supporting them.” Through the program, NPC was able to connect students with employers, and the relationship has expanded to include relationship building between the college and other industries.
Applications for the Greater Phoenix Chamber Foundation’s 2022 Fall Virtual Cybersecurity and Technology Externships will open the week of July 26, 2022. To learn more, visit AZCyberTalent.com and PhoenixChamberFoundation.com (under Job Seeker). For those interested in applying to these or any other internships (or to new jobs in general), NPC Career Services offers a variety of free resources for students, alumni, and the public, including resume building and review, and assistance with filling out and submitting applications. For more information, contact NPC’s Manager of Career Services, Ben Sandoval at email@example.com or call (928) 289-6568. You may also contact Ngan Pham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for these and more internship/externship or job opportunities at NPC’s Career Services Facebook page, www.facebook.com/NorthlandPioneerCareerServices. NPC Career Services also has a survey to gauge interest in the upcoming AZ Cyber Talent externships. Fill out the survey at https://8rt6biml3g5.typeform.com/to/W3vNJy6S.
NPC’s cybersecurity program curriculum is built around the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education (NICE) Workforce Framework, giving graduates the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to succeed in the field of cybersecurity. NPC also offers degree and certificate programs in computer information systems, software, and web development. The degree programs are flexible, with online classes and require 64 total hours to complete any of the three associate degrees offered in the field. They provide students with hands-on experience and industry certifications that employers look for on resumes such as CompTIA’s A+, Linux+, and Security+. If you are interested in learning more about cybersecurity, personal computer repair, networking, programming, Microsoft and Linux operating systems, database management, systems analysis, software, web development and design, and more, contact an NPC academic adviser at (800) 266-7845 or visit npc.edu/advising.