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Upskilling, better training keys to increasing cyber talent pool

Bob Violino, special to
Key Points
  • The cyber security talent shortage is impacting a growing number of organizations, according to a recent report.
  • The top ramifications include an increasing workload for the existing cyber security team, unfilled open job requisitions, and high burnout among staff.
  • Only pandemic-related issues outrank talent shortages as the biggest worry companies face.
Jay Yuno | Getty Images

It's one of the most serious challenges facing companies today: finding and retaining the technology skills they need so they can succeed in their digital transformation efforts.

Some job roles, such as those in cyber security, are especially difficult to fill. Supply is simply not keeping up with demand, and the gap seems to be widening each year.

A July 2021 report by the Information Systems Security Association and industry analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group said the cyber security skills crisis "continues on a downward, multi-year trend of bad to worse." The study, based on a survey of 489 cyber security professionals worldwide, found that the cyber security talent shortage has impacted more than half of the organizations.

The top ramifications of the skills gap include an increased workload for the cyber security team, unfilled open job requisitions, and high burnout among staff, according to the researchers. A majority of the organizations (95%) said the security skills shortage and its associated impacts have not improved over the past few years and 44% said it got worse.

The technology talent shortage problem is clearly on the minds of executives. A new report released by global consultancy Protiviti and North Carolina State University, which surveyed 1,453 board members and C-suite executives from organizations worldwide in September and October 2021, showed that executives cited succession challenges and the ability to attract and retain top talent as the second biggest business risk for 2022.

Only pandemic-related government policies and regulations impacting business performance scored higher.

The shortage of talent is particularly severe in the cyber security field. Demand for skills is increasing "exponentially" and shows no signs of lessening, said Simone Petrella, CEO at cyber security training provider Cybervista, at a session on the talent shortage at CNBC's 2021 Technology Executive Council Summit in New York City.

"It's going to continue to exacerbate as more things become technology-enabled," Petrella said.

Opportunities for new skills

So, what can businesses do to address the problem? One of the best strategies for finding and retaining technology talent is through increased diversity and internal career development, according to experts. That means broadening the search for people and then offering them opportunities to learn new skills throughout their time working for the organization.

Businesses can no longer rely solely on campus recruiting because it's too limiting and excludes a broad group of talented people, said Gerald Chertavian, founder and CEO of workforce development organization Year Up, who also spoke at the TEC summit.

If a company requires a candidate to have a four-year degree just to apply for a job, "you exclude 84% of Latinos and 78% of African Americans from the get-go," Chertavian said. "I don't think companies have a choice to say [they are] not going to think about different ways to attract talent."

Individuals don't necessarily even have to possess technology skills or have a particular educational background or experience to take on technology roles. They might need to begin at an entry level and receive training before moving into a technology role full time. But the point is, someone who's eager and possesses the right "soft" skills has potential.

"Give me someone who has the right attitude, behavior, and communication skills who knows how to learn and wants to learn," Chertavian said.

Diversity can play a significant role in helping to close the talent gap. Year Up created a consulting arm of its organization specifically to help companies change their talent management practices to make them more equitable and inclusive, Chertavian said.

Companies can promote the advancement of minorities within their organizations through mentoring and sponsorship programs. But upskilling is a key to career advancement. It's important for companies to not just hire from under-represented communities, but to be intentional and deliberate about retaining them and creating opportunities for them to advance, Chertavian said.

One challenge is that companies might unknowingly be holding onto data, processes, and even cultural influences from the past that discourage minorities from trying to advance within the organization.

"I think it's a really brave person as a CEO to say I'm willing to look at that data, I'm willing to question what might we be doing to perpetuate this, and then to say how might we disrupt it because we're going to get the best out of everyone," Chertavian said.

Give me someone who has the right attitude, behavior, and communication skills who knows how to learn and wants to learn.
Gerald Chertavian, founder and CEO, Year Up

Creating career pathways gives less-experienced workers a chance to move into higher-level roles. "Employers are now waking up to the idea that you have to create a pathway, a track for people to come into an organization, [stay there], and grow — even if they're not staying there for the entirety of their careers," Petrella said.

When it comes to technology talent today, for many organizations the only way to acquire the needed skills and experience is to poach people from other companies including competitors, Petrella says. But that then leaves the other companies with talent gaps that they will seek to fill in the same way, and the cycle continues.

By focusing on bringing in entry-level workers and expanding their capabilities through training and other learning programs, companies can expand the talent pool. "If we don't focus on the entry-level talent and growing them, we're never going to actually solve the overall pipeline issue," Petrella said.

Companies can use data-driven metrics to help them identify potential candidates for promotion from inside and outside the organization, and evaluate how well they are doing relative to others in terms of hiring diverse talent.

Year Up started an organization called Grads of Life, a nonprofit that works with employers to create inclusive talent strategies that deliver both social impact and business benefits. Through a research-driven approach, it helps companies understand their current positioning and create customized engagements to achieve goals.

"It's not just about hiring; it's about looking at the set of practices that are going to help you bring people through the organization" as they advance in their careers, Chertavian said. And to ensure success, efforts to broaden the workforce must be wholly endorsed by the CEO and other senior-level executives, he said.

Changing decades-old hiring processes is not easy, but is certainly worth the effort. "The payoff is you get ultimately a more creative, more engaged workforce that looks like the country we live in — and that's worth fighting for," Chertavian said.

By Bob Violino, special to

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