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Cyber talent shortage undermines U.S. in cyber warfare

A cyber attack on public and private targets in the U.S. occurs every 39 seconds.

Recent attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and SolarWinds have placed a greater spotlight on the issue as companies rapidly brace to protect their digital infrastructure, which has become ever more essential in wake of the pandemic.

But the public and private sectors in the U.S. face a common problem—a chronic shortage of skilled workers. Some 359,000 American jobs remain unfilled, according to a 2020 survey by a cybersecurity training nonprofit called (ISC)2.

“Anything you can do to create (cybersecurity jobs) is definitely needed because the amount of threat actors, the amount of malware, it’s astonishing how quickly they’ve exploded,” Mark Ostrowski, head of engineering for the U.S. East Coast at Check Point Software, a global cyber security company, told Newsweek. Here, members of the U.S. Cyber Command are seen at headquarters in this undated photo released by the Pentagon.
Petty Officer 1st Class Samuel Souvannason/U.S. Navy

Increased demand and subsequent lack of supply for cybersecurity workers isn’t a problem limited to the United States. (ISC)2 reports countries like France, Germany, Australia, and the United Kingdom each need more than 25,000 new workers to enter the field, with some needing far more.

However, with by far the largest cybersecurity industry of any of the other countries listed in the report at more 879,000 employees, the United States possesses the greatest demand for new employees to enter its workforce.

“Anything you can do to create (cybersecurity jobs) is definitely needed because the amount of threat actors, the amount of malware,” Mark Ostrowski, head of engineering for the U.S. East Coast at Check Point Software, a global cyber security company, told Newsweek. “It’s astonishing how quickly they’ve exploded.”

With over 1.5 billion IP addresses, the sheer number of entities open to attack in the United States stands far ahead of any other country. China has more than four times the population of the U.S., but is a distant second with only 330 million IP addresses.

Whether it’s pipelines, the food supply chain, or healthcare systems, any sector could become a victim of an attack. Ostrowski said agencies most crucial during times of crisis may become the most targeted. Southern California hospitals became a victim of this phenomenon just last month.

Nonetheless, cybersecurity remains a small but growing field, and Ostrowski said most people in the industry know each other. When he started with Check Point 18 years ago, they had five employees. Now it’s up to 30.

Despite the growth, demand continues to increase, yet Check Point often cannot find the ideal candidate for job. Ostrowski said he often must hire individuals without the skillset necessary for the position and has to do on-the-job training.

While he said he is happy to do it, it slows the process.

Biden speaks on Colonial Pipeline cyberattack
With the largest cybersecurity field of any of the other countries listed in the report at over 879,000 employees, the United States possesses the greatest demand for new employees to enter its workforce.” Here, President Joe Biden speaks about the Colonial Pipeline cyber attack, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 13, 2021.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

“If they’re not ideal, but they have the capability, then that’s still, obviously, someone who we would hire,” he said. “That’s really one of the ways in which you can build a team quickly.”

Hiring workers who already possess the requisite skills remains a priority in the industry, as 87% of executives cite untrained workers as the greatest risk factor for a security breach, The Cybersecurity Imperative found.

One means through which companies in the tech field can fill positions, and often do, is through H-1B “specialty worker” visas, a program for hiring foreign workers through sponsorship.

Of the top 10 companies that participate in the program, eight are technology-related.

The need for highly skilled tech workers is expected to reach about 3.5 million by 2025, the National Association of Manufacturing and Deloitte predicted, but as many of 2 million of them could go unfilled.

The problem? An uneducated workforce.

Just “16% of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career,” the U.S. Department of Education found. This trend comes as a blow to the Cybersecurity industry, which ranked as the tech sector with the highest demand, according to the Harvey Nash / KPMG CIO Survey for 2020.

Addressing this problem through the international job force remains controversial, however, and fraught with logistical challenges.

The number of people permitted to enter the program remains capped at 65,000 workers per year. An additional 20,000 H-1B visas are awarded to foreign nationals who earned a graduate degree from an American educational institution. Any move to expand this quota could meet political opposition from both sides of the aisle.

us, air, force, cyber, security, exercise
A cyber warfare operations officer watches members of the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group analyze log files and provide a cyber threat update utilizing a Kibana visualization on the large data wall in the Hunter’s Den at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, Maryland, June 3, 2017.
J.M. Eddins Jr./Airman Magazine/U.S. Air Force

“There’s always been this concern about U.S. tech workers being undercut by H-1B visa holders,” Edward Alden, a fellow at the Council on Fore­­­ign Relations who specializes in U.S. economic competitiveness, told Newsweek. “Any effort, I think, to expand the program significantly is going to run into a lot of political opposition.”

Alden said Democrats have historically been skeptical of the program. However, former President Donald Trump‘s efforts to to make the application process more difficult set the program back significantly.

Under the Obama administration, spouses of workers were able to seek jobs. Trump shut that avenue down through an executive order. Avenues toward obtaining green card status also slowed down under Trump, Alden said, and with the onset of the pandemic, the program was largely shut down.

The curbing of this program could become a major problem as the U.S. enters a new era of cyber technology. Alden said historically the United States has benefitted greatly from its ability to recruit foreign workers. 55% of America’s billion-dollar startups were founded by an immigrant, Forbes reported. With the muddying of the H-1B Visa program, Alden fears that fewer of the world’s brightest minds will consider venturing to the United States.

“The United States became less attractive for workers under President Trump, not just because of the bureaucratic hurdles of the system, but also because of the basic message coming out of the Trump administration that America didn’t want foreign workers,” Alden said.

The crippling the H1B program will likely continue to negatively impact the cybersecurity industry.

“To the extent that cybersecurity companies are saying, ‘we really need to be able to hire more foreign workers,'” he said. “I think for the foreseeable future they’re going to be out of luck, because there’s just no sign of this program being expanded.”

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