Can new tech levels save the cyber security industry?

At a time when a skills shortage threatens the future of the UK’s IT industry in general, and the cyber security sector in particular, there is a worrying confusion when it comes to government policy.

To put it into context, estimates suggest that by 2020, there will be a shortfall of approximately 1.5 million cyber security professionals worldwide. If we don’t address this looming problem now, we will not create the high-wage, future-looking economy that we all want.

Against this backdrop, a £500,000 fund to help develop cyber security skills within universities and colleges is to be welcomed. The admirable goal is to help develop innovative teaching methods to provide the skills needed to protect the UK from hackers, malware and other information security threats – and hopefully train some professionals in the process. The Cabinet Office’s recent program to dig out potential security specialists among the gamer community is also good news.

On the other hand, the desire to discover and mentor the next generation of cyber security talent seems very much at odds with what have been some deeply worrying and occasionally bizarre statements about the future of encryption in the UK – prompting more than one company to consider a speedy relocation to more tech-friendly shores.

There is a general recognition that better computer education is needed if we are to get all the IT skills the country needs. With this in mind, policy-makers are to be congratulated for putting coding at the heart of computer science in schools, and making sure that it forms part of the core curriculum. This is a significant step forward.

However, there is more to IT than writing code and businesses are not just looking for programming abilities in their potential employees. Coding in schools could therefore be seen as something of a misplaced focus – especially if it doesn’t come to grips with the demands of cyber security.

Consequently, the launch of the new tech levels by the AQA exam board deserves quiet optimism and support. Slipping under the radar in September, these qualifications shine a spotlight on more areas of computing than simply coding. Students can now opt to study design engineering; mechatronic engineering; power-network engineering; IT networking; IT programming; and IT user support. The tech level in cyber security specifically is due for launch next year along with entertainment technology.

The new qualifications are on an equal footing with A-levels and have been developed in response to the Wolf Report of 2011, which said many vocational courses do not help students’ career prospects. The question is, will they solve the cyber-security skills problem?

AQA believes that employers will start making the tech levels a key qualification for job applicants, because they will guarantee the right knowledge and skills. Certainly it’s promising that companies like Siemens, Microsoft and Toshiba, have been involved in creating the new qualifications. The involvement of the Chartered Institute of Marketing also suggests that the tech levels have taken into account the fact that IT skills are needed in a wide ranger of contexts.

On the other hand, no security specialists have publicly acknowledged any involvement, and there is an argument that says cyber security should be a key component of all tech levels rather than a separate subject. Nonetheless, the breadth of the topics covered is excitingly ambitious. They cover some of the most important skill-sets that businesses of all kinds most frequently ask for. They get young people thinking about these areas at an early stage, while still giving them the broad skills and knowledge base they – and the industry – need.

Cyber security specialists are essential to the country’s future prosperity. But they are also essential for individual wellbeing. If pupils learn at school about the possibility and the limitations of cyber-security, there is a better chance that they will also learn about how to protect themselves online.

There is an added bonus of course; the more ordinary people understand cyber security, the less likely our politicians are to get away with questionable pronouncements about banning encryption. Let’s hope the tech levels succeed.

David Bloxham, Managing Director at GCS Recruitment

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