Cybersecurity Starts in High School With Tomorrow’s Hires

Washington — Five dozen teenagers hunched over computers in a hotel conference room near Washington, decrypting codes, cleaning malware and fending off network intrusions to score points in the finals of a national cybersecurity contest.

Just hours later, the high-school students got a glimpse of the labor market’s appetite for their skills as sponsors such as network equipment maker Cisco Systems Inc. described career opportunities. Internships start as young as 16 at Northrop Grumman Corp., which reserves 20 spots for participants in the Air Force Association’s contest.

“We’re the largest provider of cybersecurity solutions to the federal government, so we know that we’ve got to help build that talent pipeline,” said Diane Miller, Northrop’s program director for the CyberPatriot contest, on the sidelines of the March event. “We just have a shortage of people applying” for the 700 positions currently open.

Security breaches experienced by institutions ranging from Facebook to the Federal Reserve are spurring spending on cybersecurity. President Obama describes the threat as one of the nation’s most serious perils, while the Department of Defense has said the Chinese military has targeted government computers. With few specialists trained to respond to evolving attacks and most universities still adjusting to requirements, demand is overwhelming supply.

“I cannot hire enough cybersecurity professionals, I can’t find them, they’re not qualified,” said Ryan Walters, who founded mobile data security company TerraWi Inc. in 2009. The company, based in McLean, Va., employs 12 people and plans to expand to 20.

Walters, who says he has 22 years of experience in the field, helped prepare 48 students from Marshall Academy in Falls Church, Va., who competed in the CyberPatriot contest this year. Twelve made it to the finals. He says he’s gotten calls from companies and government agencies to interview his protégés.

“I love the activity, it’s like a passion,” said Ramon Martinez-Diaz, a 16-year-old sophomore coached by Walters. “But it’s also great that there are so many job openings.”

Listings for cybersecurity positions rose 73 percent in the five years through 2012, 3.5 times faster than postings for computer jobs as a whole, according to Boston-based Burning Glass, a labor market analytics firm that collects data from more than 22,000 online jobs sites.

There were 64,383 jobs related to cybersecurity listed for the 12 months through April, about 3 percent of all information technology positions, according to the company.

Rob Waaser found his skills in high demand. Just more than a month after graduating in December from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with a master’s degree in information security technology and management, he started working at defense contractor Raytheon Co. Waaser chose to pursue a master’s because he said the industry is technical enough to justify the extra training.

“Cybersecurity is a good field these days to get into — there are a lot of people out there looking for talent,” said the 24-year-old, who got offers from all six of the potential employers he interviewed with. “I really didn’t have a problem finding job openings.”

Even those without college degrees are commanding good salaries. A participant in last year’s CyberPatriot contest earned certifications and went from high-school to a job paying $62,000, said Bernie Skoch, the commissioner for the competition at the Air Force Association, a nonprofit, independent group that supports the service through educational and promotional programs.

“We learned that high school is too late for many students,” Skoch said. “We need to excite them at middle school.”