The United States has a historic problem of getting children, particularly girls and minorities, interested in science and math, resulting in what has become a skilled labor shortage across science, technology, engineering and math (or STEM) fields.
A recent Cisco report found that the cyber security industry, for example, is missing nearly a million information technology and security professionals worldwide. Considering that workers in the field take home an average salary of $116,000, and entry-level positions pay $30 to $40 an hour, it's a wonder that more people aren't clamoring for these jobs. Some wonder if the "summer of Snowden" is keeping them at bay.
A fledgling cyber security program that sprouted out of a Woodbridge, Va. high school hopes to take advantage of this great demand by molding students into the skilled and certified IT professionals by the time they graduate.
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Students at the Christ Chapel Academy can sign up for a four-year advanced cyber security track that teaches them the fundamentals of ethical hacking. The classes are taught in an online learning lab through the Institute for Cybersecurity Education, or iForCE. The curriculum includes courses in C++, Java, Security+ and Computer Forensics Investigation. When the enrolled students graduate, they can expect to have multiple certifications that meet Department of Defense guidelines for practicing IT employees or contractors.
Designed to Open Doors
A sophomore at Christ Chapel, Casey Pettiford said she has always loved working with computers, but iForCE is broadening her understanding of what that world has to offer.
"I'm in the second year and I'm starting to learn how networks work," she said in a telephone interview with AOL Jobs. "It's given me a wider perspective, because there was a lot of stuff I thought I knew. As I get deeper in the program and as I understand it more, I can apply it more." The 15-year-old is now thinking about going into either engineering or cyber security.
Of the students currently enrolled, 35 percent are female and 30 percent are African-American male, according to iForCE founder and president Michael Miklich.
"I designed the program to accomplish this. It didn't happen by accident," Miklich told AOL Jobs.
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Part of the design was to make the classes free of charge to entice low-income kids. Many of these children come from schools that leave them woefully unprepared for advanced placement math and science classes. Just three in 10 Latino or African-American students took AP math in 2012, while four in 10 white students and six in 10 Asian students did, according to the most recent data from College Board, which administers AP exams. Of all AP test-takers that year, only 16 percent of Latinos and 4.4 percent of African-Americans passed their exams. That's compared to a success rate of 62 percent for white students.
"A lot of the STEM classes, like calculus, genetics, organic chemistry – these classes are tough," said Will Horner, a network manager at the Department of Defense and a member of the iForCE advisory board. "[What iForCE offers] is something that's at a level that's more achievable for these students because it's not going to overwhelm them."
Besides, he added, what kid doesn't want to hack these days?
"I was interested because it sounded cool – going in and finding out stuff about computers and how to protect them," Pettiford said. "And because I know the government is interested in young people looking to track and hack systems we use today."
Configuring a New Program
Miklich got the idea for the program after he lost his job as a government contractor in 2006. The fear of being jobless inspired him to devise something that he hoped would save other young people from the same feelings of uncertainty. After Christ Chapel offered him an IT teaching position in 2009, he began drawing out plans for the educational nonprofit that eventually became iForCE.
Now two years into operation, the cyber security program has signed up a total of 50 students. Christ Chapel is currently the only school to offer the track, but schools across the country are already voicing their interest in jumping on board. The Loudoun County public school district in Virginia recently signed a contract to offer the program to its 60,000 students. Miklich has plans to expand the program to school districts across the country and eventually overseas.
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To implement the program, participating schools need only to supply a computer lab and a classroom manager to take attendance. The manager doesn't even need to have to have an IT background. Each school must also pay an administration fee of $50 per student and a $3650 licensing fee that covers the cost of textbooks, quizzes and tests and vouchers for certification exams. In theory (because the program has not been executed at other schools yet), each school will also have a designated IT professional who will offer one-on-one guidance over the phone or via online chat, similar to Best Buy's Geek Squad.
Miklich hopes his program will become a workforce pipeline for an industry that currently does most of its recruitment at colleges. "College is a gamble and it doesn't work for everybody," he said. As recruiters start to back away from college grads asking as much as $80 an hour to start, they may find the younger iForCE alums, who will qualify for entry level positions paying up to $40 an hour upon graduation, much more attractive.
And for students who decide cyber security isn't for them, there is a whole world of opportunities in web development, programming and beyond to apply their IT skills.