Although researchers, businesses, and policymakers have long pointed towards the shortage of skilled workers in the economy, cybersecurity is one of the areas that exhibits it the most. And, it pays quite the premium. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median earnings is $99,730/year.
A groundbreaking new report by Emsi finds that the United States has less than half the cybersecurity candidates that it needs to handle increasing demand. In other words, help wanted!
While some cities exhibit a bigger gap than others—with Washington DC touting the largest gap—in nearly every case, demand outstrips supply.
Why Do Talent Gaps Exist
In standard economic models, talent gaps do not exist because workers efficiently reallocate across jobs. For example, if the relative wage in one sector declines, marginal workers might exit and move to another sector.
However, talent shortages can sometimes exist for a long period of time. Like many chronic problems, to understand the source, you have to understand the incentives. Behavioral economics provides such a lens.
The current infrastructure in higher education, specifically research universities, prioritize publication in a narrow set of academic journals as the primary goal for faculty—at least if they want to receive promotion to tenure. Teaching, keeping up to date with industry trends, and building relationships with potential employers for students get bumped down in the list of priorities. This means that students are unlikely to receive guidance about marketable skills and/or job recommendations from their professors—even if their professors are top-of-the-line researchers.
Moreover, because many job postings include requirements that are used in part for filtering, talented and eager students have a tough time finding a good fit. So much hiring is done internally or through networks.
This is especially true in the cybersecurity labor market. The U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission wrote in a recent report that “these shortages are driven by a need for personnel that have specific cybersecurity skills and experience, but they are complicated by government hiring, training, and development pathways that are not well-suited to recruit and retain those personnel.”
Not surprisingly, this has led to a schism between the private sector and higher education, particularly within liberal arts and humanities, with entrepreneurs often pointing towards the uselessness of these degrees.
While there are a wide range of views about the returns to different degrees, and recent evidence has pointed towards especially large economic returns to degrees in health, science, and social science fields, one thing is for sure: institutions of higher learning and the private sector are not working together as well as they could be—and the labor market suffers.
Revamping Our Approach to Education
Education has a critical role to play in addressing the skills gap, but the current infrastructure needs to be reformed. According to retired Adm. William McRaven, a former US Navy SEAL commander and head of US Special Operations Command, “unless we are giving opportunity and a quality education to the young men and women in the United States, then we won’t have the right people to be able to make the right decisions about our national security.”
Unfortunately, many students are never told about the full suite of career paths and the skills that are required for success in the workplace. Moreover, many students end up entering college and either dropping out or obtaining a degree that does not set them up for success in the labor market. In fact, the fraction of college dropouts is nearly as high as the fraction with a bachelor’s degree (18 versus 21 percent).
We don’t need to settle. The alternative is a labor market where hiring is based off of skills, not pedigree. Although this will require organizations to conduct a “human capital inventory” so that they know what skills they have and what skills they need, the good news is that leading organizations, like Emsi, are already developing an emerging taxonomy of skills so that employers and prospective employees can express their demand and supply for skills in a harmonized fashion.
Could a greater focus on skills help plug the cybersecurity gap? In their report, Emsi found that the vast majority of entrants in cybersecurity careers come with bachelor’s and masters degrees. Given that many of these jobs require a more narrow set of skills that can be obtained without a full four-year program, this means that there’s a large pool of candidates who could probably acquire the skills even without the “formal training.”
Interim Solutions For Talent Shortages
Long-run, we need a new model of higher education that defines itself not by who it excludes, but rather the value added on who it includes. Led by Arizona State University President Michael Crow, the University Innovation Alliance consists of a consortium of institutions leading the charge to improve student outcomes.
That means transcending the traditional silos that define research and teaching within institutions of higher education, tailoring curriculum towards attainment of specific and measurable skills, and promoting a fluid feedback loop between institutions of higher education and the marketplace.
But, in the interim, organizations still need solutions to their talent shortages.
So, “build, don’t buy.” Rather than posting jobs and watching them go unfilled, organizations can invest in their existing employees and even sign the Pledge to America’s Workers. One way to do so is by offering employees the opportunity to reskill through the acquisition of specific certifications and reallocate within the organization. Fortunately, organizations, like Workcred, have already done the heavy lifting of pulling together the materials to better understand the costs and benefits of different non-degree educational options.
By creating opportunities to learn and progress, organizations have the potential to not only address chronic skills gaps, but also raise employee engagement. This will pay dividends for companies in the form of higher productivity and brand.