RIT to build inclusive Cyber-Protection Apprenticeship for cybersecurity workers

RIT awarded Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) Challenge grant for project

Elizabeth Lamark

RIT was awarded a Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) Challenge grant to create an inclusive apprenticeship program that helps people launch careers in cybersecurity. Select graduates of RIT’s Cybersecurity Bootcamp, which is run through the university’s Cyber Range and Training Center, pictured, are eligible for the apprenticeship.

Rochester Institute of Technology has received a Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) Challenge grant to help people underrepresented in the computing workforce launch new careers in cybersecurity.

The university will use a nearly $180,000 grant to develop a Cyber-Protection Apprenticeship pilot program that provides paid work experience to people entering the cybersecurity workforce. A diverse group of apprentices will be chosen from graduates of RIT’s Cybersecurity Bootcamp, including people from different backgrounds and those who are deaf and hard of hearing.

The project aims to create a more inclusive career pipeline for cybersecurity workers—one that increases opportunities for those who might not normally be able to consider a job in the field. The industry is currently in need of more qualified professionals, as evidenced by the more than 1 million cybersecurity jobs currently going unfilled worldwide. While cybersecurity jobs traditionally go to those with four-year computing degrees, a new pipeline could open these jobs to more diverse populations.

“Diversity isn’t just the right thing to do—our project will examine and describe why it’s also the smart thing to do,” said Justin Pelletier, an RIT professor of practice in computing security and principal investigator of the project. “Hackers are by definition diverse thinkers. To outsmart them, we need to bring more cognitive diversity into the cybersecurity workforce.”

As director of the Cyber Range and Training Center in RIT’s Global Cybersecurity Institute (GCI), Pelletier helps lead the Cybersecurity Bootcamp program. It’s a 15-week immersive training course that prepares professionals from all backgrounds (even those with no prior coding or IT experience) for critical entry-level cybersecurity roles that come with an average salary of more than $50,000 a year. The bootcamp is offered remotely and has already run five cohorts, with graduates finding new careers.

Select graduates of the Cybersecurity Bootcamp will be accepted into what will become a new federally certified Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship Program (IRAP). It will provide apprentices with six months of full-time paid work experience and training through the GCI’s not-for-profit security services center—the Eaton Cybersecurity Assessment and Forensic Evaluation (SAFE) Lab.

The SAFE Lab currently provides undergraduate students with paid work conducting security assessments for partner companies. Through the grant, apprentices will be added to that team. Under staff supervision, apprentices will conduct at least 10 security evaluations (penetration tests) for nonprofit critical infrastructure organizations. With paid experience and a portfolio of hands-on projects on their résumés, apprentices will have an advantage when applying for full-time employment.

RIT’s Cyber-Protection Apprenticeship pilot program will hire six apprentices, starting in March 2022. At least three apprentices will be deaf or hard of hearing.

A core goal of the project is to broaden participation of deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the cybersecurity workforce. Donna Lange, associate professor in the Department of Information and Computing Studies at National Technical Institute for the Deaf and co-principal investigator on the project, noted that “deafness, unlike other disabilities, creates communication barriers resulting in significant and unique learning needs not present in other disabled populations.”

“More deaf and hard of hearing individuals in the workplace, particularly in highly skilled careers, leads to the creation of a more diverse workforce and increased acceptance of such individuals,” said Lange. “Our apprenticeship program will help the team develop the sensitivity and skills to create an inclusive workplace not only for deaf and hard of hearing apprentices, but for all employees to succeed.”

RIT joined the Public Interest Technology Network (PIT-UN) in 2020. PIT-UN is a national partnership of universities and colleges convened by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation aiming to build the field of public interest technology and grow a new generation of civic-minded technologists.

RIT’s grant is one of 31 PIT-UN grants totaling $3.61 million dollars that were announced Nov. 2.

“With nearly $12 million in grants awarded since the Challenge’s inception, this year’s crop of grantees continue to reaffirm our commitment to a sociotechnical education that puts humans at the center,” said Andreen Soley, director, PIT-UN. “These 31 projects prioritize connecting in class learning with their real-world applications to ensure the safety and security of some of our most vulnerable communities. We hope they serve as models and proofs of concepts for other universities and colleges.”

Pelletier said that through RIT’s apprenticeship project, they will evaluate performances and develop training resources that help periphery thinkers apply their new skills.

“We will publish our findings and endeavor to provide a catalogue of best practices,” said Pelletier. “This will help Network members build their own apprenticeship programs, leading to high-impact, life changing careers in public interest technology.”

For more information about PIT-UN Challenge winners, visit the New America website.

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