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Aotearoa's cyber skills shortage: The tug-of-war between talent supply & demand

By Sara Barker, Wed 1 Dec 2021

"ICT Security Specialist" appears on Immigration New Zealand's list of long-term skill shortages. It reflects the cry for talent that rings out across New Zealand's cybersecurity industry amid the global skills shortage. Education providers are training people of all ages - from those straight out of secondary school to professionals looking to upskill - but like any balance of supply and demand, there's a frustrating gap between what they're taught and what the market needs.

The current state of New Zealand's cybersecurity skills shortage

In 2016, the Government established the Cyber Security Skills Taskforce precisely to address this issue. In conjunction with the tech industry and academia, the aim was to develop a level 6 diploma for junior analysts, which provided training in these critical areas. In 2019, the diploma was initially available to the public through Unitec. Since then, cybersecurity courses have become more common as standalone certifications or modules within broader IT degrees. 

We've all seen the rhetoric that cybersecurity has never been more important - and it is true. Organisations need qualified, experienced security specialists to lead the charge. At the time of writing, there are currently 69 vacancies covering everything from analyst and advisory roles to engineers, managers, directors. You're in hot demand if you're skilled in almost any aspect of cybersecurity. You're highly sought-after in New Zealand and worldwide. In many cases, you have the upper hand in a desperate world that needs you. This is the reality of the cybersecurity skills gap.

Aura Information Security consultant Horatiu Petrescu says the cybersecurity industry attracts people from all walks of life and backgrounds such as IT, engineering, risk management, marketing, business analysis, and even psychology. 

"Skills, qualities, and personalities vary depending on which side of cybersecurity you're interested in. For example, technical cybersecurity might require networking knowledge and understanding of interactions between devices. Knowledge about cryptography, web security, exploits, security information and event management (SIEM) is also valuable.

"The conceptual side of security covers risk, compliance, policy and governance. Curiosity and a passion for continuous learning is also essential. The industry is always changing. Technology advances, threat actors adapt, and businesses change. Learning is not just how you start in cybersecurity; it is a way of life. The 'bad guys' are always learning and working in this industry so you must keep your own knowledge and skills razor sharp to stay ahead."

The flipside is that candidates who are skilled enough are in such demand that they have plenty of choices. They can choose who to work for; they can request a competitive salary and other benefits - why would they want to work for a New Zealand organisation if they can achieve more and receive greater benefits from another employer somewhere else in the world?

Kordia CISO Hilary Walton says businesses of all types are struggling to find new talent. in the IT and security industry alone, as many as 40% of people are considering changing jobs.

"This has been exacerbated by lockdowns and people working from home as the lack of connection with their colleagues is causing them to feel distanced from their employer," she notes.

Hays A/NZ director of cyber, Edmond Pang, says clients seek candidates with skills in identity and access management, security resilience, and risk assessment as businesses migrate data to the cloud. But there are challenges in finding suitable candidates, particularly as the local candidate pool is small and closed borders make it challenging to find talent.

So what are students being taught, and what do our education providers make of this skills gap?

Most New Zealand universities offer security-focused options for undergraduate and postgraduate students. These options range from papers to full degrees on the subject. Private training providers also offer training options for professionals.

For example, the University of Waikato's Master of Cyber Security degree is hailed as the 'first of its kind in New Zealand'. It presents an overview of computing infrastructure and cyber threats, attacks, and defences. In addition to the theory, there are practical, hands-on experiences, guest lecturers, and opportunities to engage with the industry. It's everything you would expect from a university course, and its graduates have ended up working for local businesses.

These educational experiences are now expected in any formal training certification, whether provided by a university or other training provider. The private sector is also getting on board. For example, Kordia runs a 'Cyber Academy' to develop cybersecurity talent via a set curriculum and real-world training.

In the healthcare sector, where cybersecurity is particularly important, there is a strong focus on industry qualifications and degrees.

Orion Health executive vice president of operations, Simon Clark, says, "For both our privacy and security roles, we focus more on certifications, training and qualifications, and experience in healthcare, rather than personality traits. However, people who are diligent and process-driven often excel in privacy and security roles. 

"People who are active in the security industry with affiliations to groups such as OWASP - Open Web Application Security Project and AppSec - Application Security, are often committed to continuous learning and development in their roles."

Are education providers keeping up with market needs?

It's all very well graduating with a qualification. Still, any graduate understands the old conundrum - businesses want staff with years of experience, but how do they get experience without being offered jobs? Perhaps it's unwise to expect a new graduate to fill a role like CISO or head of security. At the same time, a recent graduate will never be able to fill that role if they can't get a foothold in the industry and don't have a mentor within their organisation.

So how do we deal with the differing expectations of what candidates need, what education providers are teaching, and what organisations need? Dr Victoria Huang, University of Waikato Research Fellow in the School of Computing & Mathematical Sciences, believes internships can bridge the gap.

"With high awareness of cybersecurity and increasing demand for cybersecurity professionals, we are seeing the number of organisations offering cybersecurity internships is increasing. This gives students a good opportunity to get real-life work experience, and it helps organisations to identify their future employees."

Huang points to the Summer of Tech programme, which is designed to help businesses and students to get that experience. As a result, organisations can offer entry-level roles, but they can also find suitable candidates for the job. 

Another issue centres around how businesses recruit talent - should they focus on seeking out top talent at the expense of giving new graduates the experience they need?

Kordia's Hilary Walton says businesses need to do both. But, first, organisations must build relationships with tertiary institutions.

"We work closely with tertiary institutes who we think produce the best cyber graduates. We will often go in to speak to the students once or twice a year so we can be part of their education. We bring in cybersecurity professionals from our team who are both technical and non-technical so that the students can see the breadth of roles available in this industry," she says.

Edmond Pang says it's a challenge to balance the intake of new graduates and skilled professionals. Often a lack of in-house expertise means there would be nobody to guide recent graduates, thus exacerbating the skills gap. And, of course, businesses still want to protect their security.

"Some organisations are already providing ongoing learning and development for their cyber team or are hiring cyber candidates with potential who can be upskilled into the role. This is a definite advantage, allowing an employer to recruit professionals who, with a little upskilling, can become highly valued employees. But ultimately, it will take a longer-term strategy of increasing cybersecurity awareness to help overcome this skills shortage."

Pang references the recent October Cyber Awareness Month, which identified a need for greater cyber awareness in three key areas:

  • Future talent – help students understand what a career in cybersecurity looks like and what career progression is offered to increase interest in the field;
  • Users – ensuring all staff are practising smart choices when using digital products on an organisation's platform since 95% of cyber breaches are caused by users.
  • Existing cyber staff – provide ongoing training to upskill current cybersecurity professionals to learn and understand new tools and products and protect from new threats.

Victoria Huang adds, "As cybersecurity researchers, we always try to promote cybersecurity and raise cybersecurity awareness. For example, we have been organising the national cybersecurity event called the New Zealand Cyber Security Challenge since 2014. The challenge invites more than 500 secondary school students, tertiary students, and industry experts from across New Zealand to participate in a series of cyber challenges. The challenges in the entrance round don't require participants to have a deep knowledge of cybersecurity. Instead, they are designed to direct participants' ability to think outside the box, a key skill you need in the industry."

"Apart from the challenge rounds, the on-campus day also includes keynotes given by cybersecurity organisations (e.g., New Zealand Police, National Cyber Security Centre, and industry experts). Therefore, the event provides a great opportunity for organisations, participants, and cybersecurity enthusiasts to interact with each other. "

Do we need to relax immigration requirements to cyber-protect our businesses?

Regardless of how students and professionals are gaining experience, there is a continuous call from businesses to relax immigration requirements for those on the skills shortage list because - for whatever reason - they can't find the right talent on home soil.

Victoria Huang says there are two ways to approach this issue. "First, we can train cybersecurity professionals to bridge the gap. This is what we as educational organisations are doing. However, the current situation is a lack of skilled professionals in both industry and academia. Therefore, even though we have domestic students interested in cybersecurity, we may not have enough qualified individuals to provide the training. 

"Second, we need industries to work closely with tertiary providers to grow cybersecurity talent to meet the increasing demand for trained cybersecurity professionals. Although more organisations are offering cybersecurity internships nowadays, this partnership happens at a low level or a short interval. What New Zealand lacks is a long-term partnership. Not many New Zealand organisations are investing in building the cybersecurity workforce with a long-term plan."

Kordia's Hilary Walton adds, "It certainly doesn't help the IT and security market that the border is closed – it's hard enough under 'normal' circumstances to recruit enough cybersecurity professionals. While recruiting externally from markets outside New Zealand is one mechanism for filling the gap in the short term, we should still focus on growing our own talent, as this will pay dividends to the industry in the long term."

Edmond Pang believes that relaxing immigration requirements is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't help the global cybersecurity skills shortage.

"Even with relaxed immigration requirements, organisations will need a very good attraction strategy to secure international talent. A more sustainable solution is the awareness and upskilling."

Simon Clark says Orion Health's New Zealand business prefers to hire from the existing talent pool, but it's not always possible. "If there are not enough skilled individuals in the field then we have to look to hire outside New Zealand. At the moment, because of the pandemic, it's challenging. If candidates don't fulfil the strict immigration and entry requirements then we can't even look at their CVs - no matter how skilled or experienced they are."

Cybersecurity awareness is a perpetual requirement for every business

Edward Pang says that it is important to make sure all staff understand cybersecurity, even if they may not be the next CISO or security analyst.

"It's important for organisations to not only recruit cybersecurity specialists to protect their business but have a strategy in place to raise awareness and educate workforces on what good cybersecurity looks like. Ninety-five percent of cyber breaches occur through employees being careless, so it's not just up to a cybersecurity team – it's important every employee is informed and cyber aware to reduce the chance of a breach."

Kordia's Hilary Walton says cybersecurity is teachable to anyone who is motivated and capable.

"One of the key recruitment ingredients for me is what candidates can add to the team in terms of diversity of experience and thought, and how well they will fit into our culture and work in a team. Cybersecurity is so fast-paced that it is difficult for a person on their own to get across the influx of new trends and information relevant to our industry.

"By acting as a team, and sharing, collaborating, and teaching others, we can be stronger and better at what we do. The best people in this industry are those who contribute to the infosec community – whether that be presenting information to peers at industry events, mentoring others, or simply sharing notes and perspectives with their colleagues."

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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