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Keeping pupils at the cutting edge for cyber careers

Cyber security is a rapidly growing industry – and there's plenty teachers can do to prepare students for careers in it

Payal Mohta

How teachers can help to prepare students for cyber security careers

When we think about the technology of the future, there can be a tendency to jump to the kind of worst-case scenarios we see in sci-fi films. But while the rise of the machines may be a bit far-fetched, there’s no denying that issues of online privacy and security will be a key part of the tech landscape ahead of us.

“Forty to 50 years ago, cars weren’t safe,” says Chris Ensor, deputy director for cyber growth at the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) – a part of GCHQ – in the UK.

 “Since then, measures like compulsory seatbelts have been introduced and manufacturers have built in safety features like airbags, but it’s taken a long time to get there. I think that will be true for technology, too. I don't see the need for cyber security skills going away any time soon. It will only grow as more technology hits the streets. Over time, more jobs – including those of accountants, project managers, business analysts – will see an element of cyber to their roles.”

According to recent findings from the World Economic Forum, 84 per cent of employers are set to rapidly digitalise working processes, including a significant expansion of remote work.

So the direction of travel for future employment seems clear: jobs of all varieties in the future will require employees to have more tech skills.

The importance of cyber security skills

“That’s why it’s so important that we give young people from all backgrounds opportunities to develop cyber skills to help them keep themselves secure online and perhaps consider a career in cyber security”, Ensor says.

The NCSC is putting this into practice with its CyberFirst programme, through which more than 40,000 young people in the UK have taken up free opportunities to learn more about the industry and explore their passion for tech.

Initiatives include a bursary scheme to financially support undergraduates and degree apprentices on cyber-related courses, free educational courses for 11- to 17-year-olds to help students develop practical skills such as coding and cryptography, and contests where they can put these skills to the test.

Yet experts can’t be exactly sure which tools and technologies they will be working with in the next five years. A common concern, for example, is around the automation of coding, and whether programming will remain as important a skill as it is today. So adaptability needs to be a key consideration.

Dr Sarah Jones, deputy dean at De Montfort University, says that it’s vital for teachers to recognise that the “one job for life” model no longer exists. Young people will likely switch between several jobs and in different fields to keep up with the changing pace of technology.

When considering future tech jobs, it's impossible to ignore the glaring gender gap, too. According to a 2019 report by The Women Of Tech UK, some 70 per cent of 1,000 women working in tech who were interviewed reported that there was a gender imbalance in their workplace.

“It’s not just about diversity statistics and the number of opportunities available,” says Ensor. “We want to see women represented in technical communities to ensure we have diversity of thought and avoid ‘group-think’ – the gender imbalance really undermines that goal.”

CyberFirst finals

To try and combat this, the NCSC launched its annual CyberFirst Girls Competition, offering 12- to 13-year-old girls the chance to test their cyber security skills and apply them to realistic scenarios. Teams of up to four girls tackle a series of interactive puzzles over the course of different rounds in a bid to be crowned the UK’s top codebreakers – and huge numbers of them want to take the title.

Last year, nearly 12,000 girls entered the contest, and since the competition launched in 2017, some 37,000 have taken part. The aim is to inspire pupils to consider a career in cyber security, pitched at a time when they’re starting to think about what subjects to take for their GCSEs and beyond.

Ensor stresses the importance of the tech industry becoming more diverse so that young people feel that cyber security could be the career for them.

“There’s a perception that cyber security only has to offer jobs suited to a select group of technically minded people and that there’s a strict mould for what makes a good cyber specialist. But that isn’t the case,” he says.

CyberFirst competition 2021

Despite these challenges – known and unknown – there are some common skills that teachers can ensure students develop in order to thrive in the tech jobs of the future. Resilience, in particular, is a common requirement.

“When I'm interviewing for roles on my team, a growth mindset, a demonstrated ability to learn on the job and a sense of curiosity – the most essential components of resilience – is what I am looking for,” says Emily Glassberg Sands, VP of data science at Coursera. “Along with strong foundations of maths, systems and analytical thinking. This is what allows one to adapt to fast-changing work environments.”

Ensor agrees, and says that there’s much more to an education in technology than a focus on Stem and computer science.

“It’s vital that technology is explored in other subject settings, as that is how young people will experience it when they start their careers,” he says. “Whether that’s as a climate scientist looking at big data in the context of population movements, for example, or training to be an aeroplane pilot using computer simulators or a teacher using virtual reality tech to bring lessons to life.

“This approach is at the core of the CyberFirst Girls Competition. By framing key ideas such as cryptography and coding in accessible puzzles relevant to young girls, we aim to engage their imaginations and creativity as well as their more logical skills.”

And so, Jones says, teachers should encourage students to engage with “the use of technology” – its learning, interactive and experiential power.

“The technology is changing all the time but these ideas will remain,” she says.

Collaboration also remains an important tool in navigating the future of tech jobs.

“Technology is one of the few subjects that can be taught as a shared learning experience between teachers and students,” explains Mark Smith, CEO of Ada, the National College For Digital Skills in London. “Teachers need to be more confident in this approach.”

Jones says incorporating more play and experimentation – a major part of most tech organisations – can be hugely beneficial.

“Teachers and students have to break the rules of technology so they can find new ways of doing things,” she says. “One can’t be afraid to fail.”

This constant need to upskill and challenge the present order may be daunting for many, but Sands considers it a privilege.

“That's what's fabulous about working in tech – you have the opportunity, or even the duty, to continue learning throughout your working career.”

 

Registrations for this year’s CyberFirst Girls Competition are open and the first round begins on Monday 25 January for teams looking to compete

CyberFirst competition 2021

Payal Mohta

Payal Mohta is a freelance content writer covering edtech, business, and design. Her work has been featured in The Guardian, Washington Post and Al Jazeera. www.payalmohta.com

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