Cybersecurity Field Not Ready to Be Professionalized, Study Finds


Demand for cyber pros is too great to erect barriers, author explains.

The time is not yet ripe to begin introducing professionalization standards into the rapidly changing and diverse field of cybersecurity, particularly given the staffing shortages that already exist in the field, according to a new report by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences.

The report, “Professionalizing the Nation’s Cybersecurity Workforce? Criteria for Decision-Making,” released Wednesday, concluded that while the field of cybersecurity requires specialized knowledge and intensive advanced training, it is still too young and diverse a discipline to introduce professionalization standards.

“One of the things that gave us pause was that when an occupation professionalizes, it erects barriers to entry,” said Dr. Ronald Sanders, a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and one of eight members of the committee producing the report. “On one hand, it improves the quality of people who enter the profession, but it also discourages some people from entering the field. At a time when the field is evolving and supply has not kept pace with demand, to professionalize the entire field would likely be counterproductive.”

Specifically, the report, which was sponsored by the Homeland Security Department, noted that the diversity of jobs in the cybersecurity field requires a careful analysis of whether and how professionalization should be implemented, taking into account the responsibilities and context of a particular job.

In addition, the certifications and other requirements that come with professionalization status may provide useful tools for vetting job candidates, but overreliance on these standards may screen out some of the most skilled experts, particularly the “self-taught hackers,” the report states.

Sanders emphasized that one of the defining characteristics of a profession is a code of ethics that ensures the information cyber workers are entrusted with is privileged and protected. While this is a benefit of professionalizing the field, he said, more work needs to be done to determine what the ethics of cyber work should look like. “Given what almost every cybersecurity worker has access to, the ethics and ethos would say the quid pro quo is that you’re going to respect and maintain the confidentiality of it because it is so sensitive,” Sanders said.

The report emphasizes that while broad professionalization of the cyber field is not yet recommended, efforts to improve and certify cybersecurity skills by the federal government – like the National Initiative on Cybersecurity Education – and those in the private sector and academia should be encouraged and applauded.

At the same time, activities to professionalize a cybersecurity occupation should only be undertaken when two high-level criteria have been met: the occupation has stable knowledge and skill requirements, and there is credible evidence of skills deficiencies in the workforce, the report noted.

One example of a cybersecurity sub-profession that may be mature enough for professionalization is digital forensics, which is relatively stable in the level of skills required, Sanders said.  

“We took pains in the report to say that this doesn’t mean the federal government or employers should stop or curtail their efforts to continue to educate and train cybersecurity workers, or that universities should stop trying to improve their courses of study or curriculum, or that the certifying bodies should stop certifying,” Sanders said. “All of those things are good for improving the quality of the cybersecurity workforce.” 

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