Microsoft builds fast-track to six-figure cybersecurity jobs at more than 180 colleges

BY Meghan MalasSeptember 08, 2022, 2:54 PM
General view of the Microsoft store in Oxford Circus. (Photo by Vuk Valcic—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

The largest technology companies in the world have a vested interest in addressing the global cybersecurity talent shortage. By 2025, there will be 3.5 million cybersecurity jobs open globally—a 350% increase over eight years, according to Cybersecurity Ventures—and Microsoft is intent on closing this gap.

The high demand for cybersecurity experts is reflected by the salaries for these roles in the U.S. Microsoft estimated that in 2021, the country had 464,200 unfilled positions that required cybersecurity skills and the average salary for these jobs is $105,800. Some estimates for cybersecurity worker salaries are even higher. Companies like Booz Allen Hamilton report the annual earnings of entry-level cybersecurity employees to be around $150,000. The median base compensation for chief information security officers, which typically requires a master’s degree, is $584,000, according to a survey by Heidrick & Struggles. 

Despite steep demand and six-figure salaries, only 3% of U.S. bachelor’s degree-holders have cybersecurity-related skills, Cybersecurity Ventures reports. This skills gap is what Microsoft is hoping to change by honing in on the lack of diversity in the computing and cybersecurity fields. Among cybersecurity specialist jobs, 83% of these roles are held by men and 72.6% by white people. 

What’s included in Microsoft’s cybersecurity skills initiative

In 2021, Microsoft launched its cybersecurity skills initiative, which included the company giving $150 million to federal, state, and local governments to support upgrading government agencies’ cyber protection and committing to spending $20 billion on advancing their security solutions over the next five years. The initiative also included a large-scale effort to support cybersecurity education.

Microsoft is collaborating with 181 community colleges across 44 states in an attempt to provide accessible pathways into the profession. The tech company launched a campaign to recruit 250,000 people into the cybersecurity workforce by offering a free cybersecurity curriculum to all U.S. public community colleges, providing training for college faculty, and offering financial support to 25,000 students. Microsoft declined to provide the full list of partnering schools to Fortune

Alongside Abbott and Raytheon Technologies, Microsoft also supports the HBCU Cybersecurity Industry Collaboration Initiative Pilot. The program, which will run through Fall 2022, involves collaboration with with the schools of engineering at four historically black colleges and universities: Hampton University, North Carolina A&T State University, Prairie View A&M University, and Virginia State University.

To learn more about how the Big Tech company is striving to close the cyber skills gap, Fortune spoke with Naria Santa Lucia, senior director of digital skills and employability at Microsoft Philanthropies. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

‘Cybersecurity is going to be a huge growth industry’

Fortune: The demand for cybersecurity experts is nothing new, so why has Microsoft decided to launch these initiatives in the past couple of years? 

Santa Lucia: We are a digital company, and so when there’s an alignment between what the company is driving towards and what we’re driving towards societally, the nexus of those two things is where we can really make a big difference.

COVID-19 obviously created a ton of opportunities for digital transformation. At one point, our CEO noted that at the beginning of COVID, two years’ worth of digital transformation happened in just two months—and that only grew from there. Additionally, cyber attacks and threats have increased significantly. So everywhere from our products to the communities, to nation states—how does Microsoft help?

From my perspective, cybersecurity is going to be a huge growth industry. So we asked ourselves: How can we make sure that people who have the talent, aptitude, and interest—especially those who are currently excluded—have a pathway into those roles? 

Fortune: How is Microsoft supporting colleges’ efforts to expand cybersecurity programming, and how are you ensuring these efforts are sustainable? 

Santa Lucia: We partnered with the American Association of Community Colleges to help build the capacity of the administrations and the faculty to teach computer science at all of these schools. We also are working with the National Cyber Training and Education Center—they designate the Centers for Excellence for community colleges—which allows schools to prove that they’re ready to deploy cybersecurity content.

There are many different ways to find cyber talent. On one end, there are those people who are maybe in a different IT role that with a little bit of re-skilling can go into cybersecurity. On the other end, there are those individuals who maybe never had a chance in a tech role, but can pursue the whole learning process and gain those skills, certifications, or credentials to enter the field. 

Both of those audiences are served at our nation’s community colleges. Not only do they have people who are going for those degree programs, but also there are workforce members that can go in and kind of brush up their skills. Community colleges are also so affordable and they are everywhere. So that’s why we think doubling down on the investment in community colleges is a really great way to close that talent gap quickly.

Right now, there are so many cyber threats and there is so much opportunity for new jobs and new roles in this space. I think if someone has even a little bit of interest in being a problem solver and is curious about the cybersecurity field, a really good place to check it out is your local community college.

Why it’s important to break stereotypes in cybersecurity

Fortune: To address the demand for cybersecurity skills, why is it so critical to focus on career pathways for underserved communities?

Santa Lucia: We have found that the more targeted we can really be—especially for underserved populations—the better. Previously, we launched a global tech skilling initiative at the start of COVID. We’ve far exceeded our goal of reaching 25 million people and when we started looking underneath the hood of that initiative—we found that some roles are popping, and cybersecurity was one of those. There are lots of different kinds of jobs in cybersecurity, from analysts all the way to people that create the technology—it’s also a diverse set of roles. 

After we realized that this is a big opportunity to upskill talent and find roles for underserved individuals to be successful, we went out and spoke with several community colleges and asked them if students were interested and if so, what were the barriers to producing more cybersecurity talent. And we found out that students are very interested. The barriers included lack of access to up-to-date curriculums, limited bandwidth from faculty, and students themselves often needing financial assistance to pursue these programs. 

There is a lot of stereotyping of computer science professionals and I think a lot of the diversity issue in cybersecurity and computer science has to do with those stereotypes. Once I asked a leader from a community college about what kinds of people are really good at cybersecurity. And he said to me, honestly, anyone who is curious and loves problem-solving. When you frame it like that, that’s a lot of types of people, right? Many people could say that they love a good mystery or a good puzzle. 

So I think that we need to break those stereotypes, which is why I’m really proud that we’ve started our work first with community colleges because it is a system that is very robust across the U.S.—and that system has a lot of women and lots of students of color. If we can really tap that infrastructure to start getting that message out, that’s a good start to diversifying the pipeline.

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