The United States is under attack from an unknown enemy. Legions of enterprising foes, both foreign and domestic, are lurking in cyberspace. They threaten to take down our defense networks and power grids, along with our banking, transportation and communications systems.
President Barack Obama calls this escalating cyber threat "the most serious economic and national security challenge we face as a nation." The House Armed Services Committee asserts that the Pentagon's computers are targeted at least 5,000 times every 24 hours.
There is evidence that other nations regularly infiltrate the networks that control our country's critical infrastructure, looking for leverage should they ever want to use it. And let's not forget the millions of Americans who have had their identities stolen or their health records intercepted by enterprising cyber thieves.
Where then, is the next generation of America's cyber warriors who are trained to thwart these threats? The capable men and women who can design and maintain secure systems, develop sophisticated prevention tools and create sound public policies?
A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) outlines a serious skills gap in the cyber security workforce. The report, titled "A Human Capital Crisis in Cybersecurity," quotes Jim Gossler, the founding director of the CIA's Clandestine Information Technology Office, who is also a National Security Agency visiting scientist. He says that "there are about 1,000 security people in the U.S. who have the specialized security skills to operate effectively in cyberspace. We need 10,000 to 30,000."
It seems logical, then — at a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans are looking for work — that the need for trained cyber security specialists is not just a challenge but also an opportunity.
One answer lies in high-quality cyber education. Not simply a course or two; our nation needs full-scale degree and certificate programs designed to produce "complete" professionals, armed with the requisite knowledge to conquer a threat that is more complex and volatile than any we have ever faced.
There is a critical demand for programs with rigorous academic standards and clearly articulated outcomes such as those recently launched at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). They are grounded in real-world problems and replete with opportunities to test-drive new skills.
The two graduate and one undergraduate degree programs now available at UMUC rely on an e-learning flexible delivery system with global reach that could be replicated on a national scale.
To accomplish this, the United States will need to mount a collaborative and concerted effort that includes policymakers, industry leaders and academic communities. The groundwork has already been laid by the president and Congress. The time for action is now.
The federal government should consider establishing grants for cyber program development and uniform standards for graduate certification. Another path worth consideration would be scholarships for career changers and expanded opportunities for student internships. Private industry also should consider offering incentives such as tuition assistance and co-op programs.
Colleges and universities must do their part by offering world-class programs and faculty to train the cyber security workforce of the future. The programs must include continuous curriculum review, to address ever-evolving challenges as they emerge.
This ambitious agenda will require significant and immediate investment of time and money. By strategically pooling resources, we can train workers for well-paying jobs and build the network of professionals we need to keep our infrastructure resilient and our vital information safe and sound.
Susan C. Aldridge is president of the University of Maryland University College, which offers online and classroom-based instruction to more than 90,000 working adults worldwide. Her e-mail is email@example.com. Lt. Gen. Harry D. Raduege Jr., USAF (Ret.), is chairman of the Deloitte Center for Cyber Innovation. He helped develop UMUC's cyber security education programs.