Bridging the Cybersecurity Careers Guidance Gap

Current Cybersecurity Careers programmes reach barely 2% of the target audience. It is time to bridge the gap with the mainstream programmes run via the Careers and Enterprise Company. After I posted my blog yesterday I was sent a link to the report of the recent DCMS exercise to Map the relevant initiatives.

It provides invaluable evidence to back up the case for a Cybersecurity Careers Partnership, “co-hosted” by the Careers & Enterprise Company, The Cyber Security Council and relevant trade and professional bodies, driven by the thirty or large employers who recruit and train most of those who secure the applications, systems and infrastructures on which society now depends and support us and our families (or not) when we go on-line.

Those working on the proposal have a series of meetings with potential supporters and partners over the next ten days and should be ready to go public on a “prospectus” by 8th August.

Summary of Problem and Opportunity

Recent DCMS reports indicate that the shortage of cybersecurity professionals has increased over the past year because demand has increased faster than supply. The shortfall (growth in demand plus wastage less new entrants) has increased by 40%. Bridging the gap requires action to attract and train school-leavers, graduates and mature entrants on a very much larger scale than the current outreach and talent attraction efforts of the members of the Careers and Learning Group of the Cyber Security Council.

There are a great many cyber careers initiatives – from the NCSC supported flagship programme, Cyber First, (with fifty accredited schools and colleges and twenty summer courses this year) to the UTC Cyber Group (aiming to produce over 500 “graduates” per annum) and the programmes organised by those currently working together on the formation of the Cybersecurity Council.

The collective reach is, however, quite modest.

The recent  DCMS Mapping Exercise identified over 70 initiatives (excluding those wholly funded by Government). 10% were inactive and it studied a subset of 26 of the largest. These collectively reached about 2% of those aged 5 -19. Some were excellent but they found little evidence of networking, signposting or learnings being shared between initiatives, despite talk of the need for a concise strategy, of wanting to learn from others or of knowing where to refer those leaving programmes.

Meanwhile use of technical jargon and focus on reducing the risk of cyber attack fails to attract those with the talents wanted by the much larger number of employers (from on-line services, entertainment, retailing and transaction processing to financial services) who want to put cyber skills into business context – alongside customer privacy, data protection, on-line security, safeguarding, counter-fraud, compliance, damage limitation, governance, asset recovery and victim support.

In comparison the 4,200 schools and colleges using the Careers & Enterprise Company network to meet the Gatsby Benchmarks are supported by over 3,300  enterprise advisors . Over 2,200 are members of the local careers hubs which are supported nationally by over 320 cornerstone employers.  Over 2,800 schools careers leaders took part in their on-line training programmes last year, with over 1,400 on professional development programmes. The Careers and Enterprise Company is also seeking to create Industry Partnerships to bring together employers in specific sector to support the geographically based hubs.

The proposal is to bring together the two approaches and expedite the rapid expansion of the cyber talent pool by creating one of more partnerships, “co-hosted” by the Cyber Security Council and the Careers and Enterprise Company (and others), with the support and participation of DCMS, BEIS, DWP and DfE and driven by employers (including central and local government) who wish to greatly expand their own digital, STEM, security (including cyber) and counter-fraud skills pipelines, assisted by the professional bodies and trade association who are working on the creation of the cyber security council to set the accreditation standards of the future.

Reports like Trends in Careers Education 2021 indicate the progress that has been made in embedding careers advice into the curriculum, but Covid and the pressure to return to “normal” with regard to mainstream academic education has placed serious strain on the Careers Leaders in schools, for whom this is a secondary role to their other subject and/or classroom responsibilities.

Those who want their careers messages conveyed effectively to pupils, with access to on-line material, visits, speakers and work experience opportunities, need to recognise why their schools contacts are commonly too busy to even reply to e-mails, let alone organise their end of the activities. Hence the need for careers partnerships, with the organisation done by the industry participants and/or intermediaries, to make it very much easier for schools to respond.

Covering mature entrants and lifelong learning not “just” schools, colleges and diversity

There is a similar problem with regard to mature entrants. The many initiatives, from  DWP-funded welfare to work programmes through DCMS-supported boot camps to BEIS support University programmes need to be “publicly” joined (campaigns and guidance materials) to the employer recruitment and training programmes and professional career pathways in which careers services and recruitment and employment agencies can understand, publicise and support.

This area is outside the current remit of the Career and Enterprise Company but the pace of change with regard to updating the skills and knowledge in demand, plus the need to cross train and update those already in the work force, mean that cyber is likely to lead the transition from the Student Loans model to a world of Lifelong Learning Accounts being used to acquire and accredit a “crazy paving” of evolving micro modules. This should, therefore, be an area for the “partnership” to “explore”.

Those working on the professional careers structures to be overseen by the Cyber Security council recognise the need to address the current confusion of qualifications and careers paths but lack the support and resources to agree and publicise messages to the variety of audiences they are seeking to attract, via the channels that will reach them. In consequence their messages and offers are lost in the inboxes of those with whom they have not already created working relationships.  Many have not yet registered as Delivery Providers in order to use the channels that already exist.

Working across silo boundaries

The first task will be is to work with trusted intermediaries who understand how the current careers system works, in both theory and practice, to create one or more over-lapping partnerships, driven by consortia of Employers, Professional Bodies, Trade Association and Training Provider, “co-hosted” by the Cyber Security Council and the Careers and Enterprise Company (and others), with the support and participation of DCMS, BEIS, DWP and DfE.

The number and nature of the partnerships will depend on the sectors with which relevant employers relate. Over half the cyber workforce, and a higher proportion of trainees, are employed by barely 20 -30 organisations who main business is Defence & Aerospace, Financial Services, Communications or Outsourced Consultancy/Services. Many are already cornerstone employers . Most of the other half are scattered across employers too small to provide supervised, in-house, work experience.  Addressing that community will require using approaches such as those used by the Cyberhubs to not only create virtual experience but also provide a “safe” space for supervised work experience.

Learning from the hard-won experience of others  

Perhaps the most serious problem when it comes to cybersecurity careers advice is the belief that it is “different”. It is. In many ways. But not when it comes to looking at how to deliver careers messages to schools and pupils that will resonate with them, enthusing, attracting, and educating them in ways that will cause them either to join the industry or take the opportunities on offer to secure work experience that is also relevant to whatever business, profession, trade or vocation they do decide to join.

Some of the largest employers of cyber skills already participate in mainstream STEM programmes and many STEM ambassadors happen to be cyber professionals. There is a need to encourage more to do so and to make it easier from them to do so. This should be a prime objective of the partnership.

I am indebted to the Careers Collective for permission to reproduce the following list of the areas that need to be addressed. See also their most recent newsletter Careers Collective Newsletter 5th May .

The list is generic. It does not “just” apply to cybersecurity and digital skills. But it does – even more so.

Hence the reason for those who take cyber security skills seriously to look at creating one or partnerships using the Careers and Enterprise company framework  to break out of current constraints.   

The generic problems of confusion compounded by overload that need to be addressed

Capacity:  Careers Leaders in school complain on social media threads and in meetings about not having the time to open emails or read about provider offers. Their email addresses must be public so that external providers can contact them, but Careers Leaders have no administrative function that they can use to process what arrives, and they receive information from Hubs as well. Often, they have other leadership responsibilities within their school. Sometimes, even when they have managed to arrange a workshop, staffing issues, issues with internal communication or an overwhelming workload mean that the workshop is forgotten about, and internal arrangements are not made for students to experience the event

Curriculum:  Careers Leaders say that they are unable to take students out of timetabled lessons to engage in careers education activities. There is an increased focus post-pandemic on bringing levels of literacy and numeracy back up and on core curriculum elements, which is adding further challenge to careers education provision, which must often be accommodated in PSHE slots, numbering only one or two per fortnight

Internet Technology:  Many schools lack the hardware and software to deliver aspects of the curriculum virtually. A class may have only a few working PCs or laptops and slow connection speeds. Cameras and/or sound may not work. There are issues with broadband connectivity, laptop availability, staff competency, onsite technicians and understanding of security parameters, all of which mean that students are not enabled to learn using the latest technology and approaches

Finance:  There is a reluctance to pay for services. Often Careers Leaders have a tiny budget, or do not have access to a budget, or expect services to be free of charge and paid for by someone else. Careers Advisors and Careers Leaders are underpaid, which adds to the sense that careers is less of a priority

Employer engagement:  The emphasis is very much on student engagement with employers, but employers are not trained to deliver learning experiences and are interested in improving the talent pipeline for their business which students do not appreciate. Schools need employer encounters, but these are difficult to arrange because of the aforementioned capacity and curriculum issues. Business and education also speak different languages and operate in different timeframes.

Structure:  Schools are supported by the Careers and Enterprise Company; those in Hubs statistically do better in terms of meeting the Gatsby Benchmarks, but not all schools are in Hubs. Schools should have a business volunteer, called an Enterprise Advisor, but there is huge churn and variety in competency. Enterprise Advisors are not SEND confident so specialist schools struggle to find one. Careers Leaders are teachers, so their responsibility is to their Principal for teaching and learning, rather than to the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC). This means that some schools choose not to engage with their Hub or Enterprise Coordinator. Many CEC employees are on one-year contracts so there is churn. They work for both the CEC and LEP, and sometimes other organisations as well, which poses a challenge.

Stakeholders: Parents, Governors, and other stakeholders are lacking in opportunities to increase their knowledge and understanding of the careers landscape and world of work as it applies to their child. This leads to disengagement and a confusion of advice, which in turn leads to conflict. This is a particular issue when an apprenticeship is something that a student wants to take on because there is still not the parental support and engagement for this option.

Work experience:  This is a challenge for schools, because of the cost. Students are usually required to arrange their own placements, which disadvantages those whose parents are not in work or are not well connected. Children of middle-class professional parents tend to manage to arrange good placements. Some schools are buying in expensive Virtual Work Experience programmes (£2,000 is a quote we have heard) either for whole year groups or just for those who have no placement.

Special Educational Needs: Careers Leader training programmes have not included content to support working with students who have SEND so specialist schools often have to put in their own training programmes, at cost. Enterprise Advisors are difficult to recruit for specialist schools. There are very few external providers catering for the careers education needs of students learning in specialist settings. Specialist schools have a lower budget for careers. PRUs are often left out entirely. Students in mainstream schools are treated as a homogenous group for careers education delivery even though most children with SEN are learning in mainstream settings; there is no differentiation.

Marketplace:  Careers service provision is a crowded marketplace with a huge variety of offers from charities, social enterprises, employers and businesses, ranging from one man band style operations to national organisations, with their own, sometimes niche, expertise, approaches, models and platforms.

Mindset: Teachers were forced into virtual delivery when the pandemic closed schools. Many of them remain uncomfortable with the format and think of it as an emergency back-up. There is a lack of understanding about how the world of work has shifted in terms of virtual technology. They are not receptive to the idea that students need to learn using virtual technology because they need to prepare for virtual recruitment and onboarding, and virtual working. Their primary concern in terms of careers delivery is to achieve the Gatsby Benchmarks, which are still seen by some as a checklist to tick off. (There has been recent work around what activities are meaningful by the CEC).

Deployment of Careers Staff: The Careers Leader role is strategic, but often they are not a senior member of staff, cannot make strategic or financial decisions and sometimes are also the Careers Advisor, which is an independent delivery role. The budget for Careers Advice is very limited which means students often have the bare minimum of access to that individual, who might be working in several schools at once. Students with additional needs (15% of students) are particularly disadvantaged

Image and Value: Careers still suffers from a poor image and is not valued by students, parents, and teaching staff as it should be. It is considered dry and boring, and an add on to the serious business of passing exams. Many stakeholders have had negative experiences of ‘careers advice’ which doesn’t help, and careers is still the poor man of the education system

Employers: Most employers understand that they need to bring in young talent to plug serious skills gaps and want to reach students in schools but struggle to do so. Business and education think they have different priorities. Employers want to see a return on their investment in the form of an improved talent pipeline, but students resist this approach because they want to be free to make choices. Employers are frustrated by failed approaches to schools; again, capacity issues mean that schools do not take up employer engagement offers. Employers in the CEC’s Cornerstone group are engaging in strategic and research-based work around how to engage with schools

Primaries: Published research demonstrates that there is a significant narrowing of career aspiration by the age of 7, often due to gender and socioeconomic factors. Many students become conscious of experiencing a careers curriculum in Year 10, which is far too late. There is no statutory obligation for Primary schools to deliver a careers curriculum, although preparatory work is being done by the CEC and NELEP on this.

Methodology: We learn best through active engagement in learning that is differentiated in delivery and relevant to our context, but there are still too many schools booking ‘careers talks’ from employers and other speakers, designed to be inspirational. Most of the students crowded in their hundreds into a hall to experience a talk do not gain sufficient value. This is also because they will often not have been prepared for the event and it will not have been anchored in wider learning. This means that they do not understand how it may be relevant and what learning they might draw. Material which teaches transferable skills and knowledge is still in short supply

Conclusion: The delivery of the core curriculum is key, especially post-pandemic. Schools therefore need content that includes learning, which is transferrable, delivered in a time efficient way. Because Career Leaders do not have capacity under the current system, there is a need for intermediaries to engage them with the Enterprise Coordinators and Enterprise Advisors to support the process of booking and delivery. Delivery needs to be as efficient and effective as possible.

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