By Olen Anderson, Co-Founder, WorkED, and Ben Crenshaw, Oracle Vulnerability Analyst and Career Technical Education Teacher at Canyon Technical Education Center
Statistics gathered by Cyberseek show that as of June 2022, there were 714,548 postings for cybersecurity jobs in the United States. With so many job openings, one would expect learners completing certificate and degree programs to have acquired the knowledge and skills to easily land a new job. However, many job seekers feel stuck in the “catch 22” of open positions requiring experience that they cannot obtain until someone hires them.
No Experience, No Job – No Job, No Experience
The idea that education or training alone leads to employment is an antiquated notion. It turns out that the eternal dilemma about experience vs. education is a constant battle in the minds of both employers and job seekers. It makes sense that more advanced or senior cybersecurity roles require both education and many years of work experience. However, it is common to see job qualifications require a minimum of 3-5 years of work experience for positions that are classified as “entry-level.”
Employers have voiced concern that employees without work experience often lack skills in areas such as organization, problem-solving, leadership, and communication. Disconnects between the skills taught in educational settings and the demands of the work environment lead to the need for new employees to be trained on soft skills they have never been taught. Additionally, new employees require extra supervision that adds cost and can prove difficult in a fast-paced work environment. Candidates with previous work-based learning under their belt come in with an understanding of and experiences with soft skills; they can better adapt to the office workflow and processes, more quickly assimilate into the project team, and rapidly become productive contributors without continual supervision and training.
Education and training opportunities help individuals gain knowledge and develop skills, but it is experience that guides one to decisive action by applying learning to produce positive outcomes. In the words of Albert Einstein, “The only source of knowledge is experience .”
Wide Variety of Work-Based Learning Opportunities
There are a number of ways to gain experience, including job shadowing, service learning, apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, clinical experiences, cooperative education, fieldwork, student teaching, fellowships, volunteer experiences, internships, and externships. Integrating work-based learning experiences into secondary and postsecondary education through externships has proven to be a successful strategy to enhance learning and provide an opportunity for learners to utilize their knowledge in a work-based setting to gain critical skills for future careers.
An externship is characteristically a work-based learning opportunity offered by organizations to give students brief practical experiences in their area of interest. Externships typically are unpaid “shadowing experiences” that last a short time, ranging from three days to a few weeks. This type of observational experience is designed to enhance a student’s socialization with a specific profession and assist in developing career goals. Externships offer students the ability to be exposed to actual work environments, where they are able to get a better understanding of their area of interest. Participants gain critical knowledge of employer-employee relations and in-office social skills and responsibilities, but creating externship opportunities for students to engage in work-based settings in cybersecurity outside of the academic learning process remains difficult due to:
Virtual Cybersecurity Externship Program Serves as a Solution
To allow learners to gain the experience employers are seeking and gain skills and credentials they need to enter and succeed in a cybersecurity career, WorkED established a Virtual Cyber Externship Program in partnership with industry to allow educational institutions to deliver regional work-based learning experiences.
The virtual externship program facilitates partnerships between local industries and educational institutions to introduce daily challenges based on authentic scenarios that learners are asked to solve individually or as a team. One unique element of the learning experience includes having multiple cybersecurity professionals interacting with students, highlighting the team approach to cybersecurity. The program ends in both a final capstone project and a Capture the Flag Competition that are both based on real scenarios experienced by the employers in their local region.
The time has come for employers and position descriptions to widen the definition of what counts as experience. Job seekers must be able to demonstrate to a potential employer how the skills gained during a virtual externship experience can be applied to a particular job. Externships offer the ability to take knowledge learned in the classroom and apply it to real-life situations. Moving them to a virtual platform opens the opportunity to a larger participant group. These programs offer hands-on and workplace-centered experiences that are often not addressed fully within more conventional academic programs. The WorkED Virtual Externship Program provides one solution that illustrates how these externships can be designed to meet the need for learners to gain work-based skills and add experience to their job applications.
 See: Backman, J. H. (2007). Practical examples for establishing an externship program available to every student. Clinical Law Review, 14(1), 1-36, Luft, V. D., & Vidoni, K. L. (2000). Educator externships: How classroom teachers can acquire business and industry experience. Clearing House, 74(2), 81-83. Frawley (2009),and Schaller, M. A. (2005). Wandering and wondering: Traversing the uneven terrain of the second college year. About Campus, 10(3), 17-24.