With cybersecurity jobs on the rise, here’s how colleges are teaching students

At both the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College, professors are seeing more interest from students in cybersecurity programs.

The need for jobs in cybersecurity will only continue to grow, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment for information security analysts is expected to grow 31% by 2029, much higher than average for other jobs. Employment for software developers is expected to grow by 22% by 2029, also higher than average.

Tammie Bolling, the chair of the computer information technology department at Pellissippi State, said the school is seeing a higher interest in cybersecurity each year. 

“Especially if you love digging into things, figuring things out, putting what I call puzzles together … a lot of people are looking at that as being a good and challenging career, as well as a well-paid career,” Bolling said.

Corey McReynolds, managing consultant for the cybersecurity firm Avertium, said right now is the perfect time to consider a career in cybersecurity. The industry is growing rapidly, with companies making competitive offers. 

McReynolds said Generation Z may be especially suited for jobs in cybersecurity, because they’ve grown up around technology. 

“They are more tech-savvy by nature,” McReynolds said. “Even though they may not know how to directly connect it with security, they already understand technology to a greater degree than, you know, probably from Gen X on. So they are more readily equipped to get into those fields.”

Pellissippi State gives students hands-on experience

Pellissippi State Community College offers a computer information technology degree, with a concentration in cyber defense. 

Michael Wolfe, dean of business and computer technology, said there has been high demand for the cyber defense program in recent years. 

“It’s such an exciting field and it changes all the time,” Wolfe said. 

With recent events like the Colonial Pipeline attack, Wolfe said professors work to incorporate those scenarios into classes. During the fall semester, students can expect to have a lab or case study based on the ransomware attack, Wolfe said. 

There are 82 students in the cyber defense major, around 50 in the networking major and around 100 in computer programming, he said. There’s been a high level of interest from students in recent years, in part because “it’s a very lucrative career,” Wolfe said. The two-year program prepares students to immediately enter the workforce.

Bolling and Wolfe said they hear from employers nearly every day, reaching out about recruiting students as interns or full-time employees. Pellissippi’s program requires students to complete an internship, where students are placed with employers around East Tennessee. 

“The reality is, in a two-year program, we graduate students who are ready to go into that entry-level position in just about any industry in cyber defense,” Wolfe said. 

McReynolds said he sees internships with hands-on experience as key for students who are pursing careers. But just as important as technical skills, McReynolds said he looks for job candidates who are strong communicators with good interpersonal skills. 

“Somebody who is able to communicate between the technical world and folks who don’t have any technical background whatsoever, that’s incredibly important to give them some level of understanding,” McReynolds said.

Pellissippi State is also home to the cyber security lab, where students in the program get hands-on experience. The lab, located at the Strawberry Plains campus, is set up so that students can be broken up into teams. Students will go through real-life scenarios in the lab, trying to hack or defend the system. 

Last year, Pellissippi was awarded a GIVE grant, which covers the cost for students to take industry certification tests called CompTIA. Those certifications help make graduates even more desirable to employers, showing they have a grasp of real-world skills needed to work in cybersecurity.

The GIVE grant also allows high school students to shadow cybersecurity jobs. This summer, a group of Knox County students is job shadowing at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, learning about cybersecurity at the hospital.

University of Tennessee

The University of Tennessee has also seen increased interest in its cybersecurity programs. 

“In general, there’s a very high uptake in it and there’s a lot of real interest in it,” UT assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science Scott Ruoti said, adding that his classes are usually at maximum enrollment each semester. 

Ruoti said major cybersecurity events show students there’s a need for jobs to be filled. 

“There just always seems to be something in the news, but I think that indicates to students that, hey, if I learn about cybersecurity, there’s going to be a job for me there,” Ruoti said. “If it’s big enough that it’s reported in the news, there’s going to be potential for me.”

UT offers both undergraduate and graduate level cybersecurity courses, with the opportunity for students to participate in research. Typically, that includes working on things like building and breaking software, and making software more secure and user-friendly. 

Students also look at smart devices, like the Amazon Alexa, and explore security within those devices. 

“The end goal is to understand the technology deeply … and then how can we design this better from a technical perspective, as well as from a human perspective,” Ruoti said.