The UK government is giving its secondary school cyber skills programme a renewed push in a bid to fill a growing tech skills gap and create a ‘pipeline’ of cyber professionals. About half of all UK businesses have a cyber skills gap, with more than 160,035 job postings in the last year for cybersecurity alone, according to a recent DSIT report.
Since its launch in 2022, more than 50,000 students in 2,000 secondary schools have signed up to take part in the ‘Cyber Explorers’ programme. The initiative provides schools with free resources designed to help pupils learn skills for a career in cyber in sectors that include medical research, security, social media and artificial intelligence.
Aimed at 11-to-14-year-olds, it teaches technology concepts and scenarios through interactive quizzes and activities. The aim is to create a pipeline of cyber talent to meet the growing needs of the wider economy. Cybersecurity is of particular concern.
While 50,000 students taking part in the first year of the scheme may appear to be a high number, the demand for cybersecurity professionals is growing faster than the supply of graduates entering the industry. According to DSIT’s own report on the cybersecurity skills gap published just last month, the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of 11,200 skilled workers in this area. While the report stated that this was an improvement on last year’s shortfall of 14,000, this reduction was ascribed to a slowdown in the growth of the tech sector instead of any improvement in the number of individuals choosing to become cybersecurity specialists. Additionally, DSIT categorised 37% of all vacancies in cybersecurity as ‘hard-to-fill,’ given the complexity of certain advertised roles.
“We’re focused on breaking down the barriers to entry, and creating new opportunities for young people to gain the skills and knowledge that could kick-start exciting careers in cyber,” said Viscount Camrose, the undersecretary of state for AI and intellectual property. “More than 2,000 schools across the country are already signed up, meaning that tens of thousands of pupils can benefit from the resources on offer – and we want to make sure even more get that chance this year.”
Enduring cyber skills shortage
The Cyber Explorers scheme is available to any secondary school pupil or home-schooled child of secondary school age. Any child that wishes to participate has to be registered by parents and teachers for the initiative’s free lesson plans, guides and resources. There is also a range of career-focused sessions run with organisations like Amazon and Verizon.
Cyber Explorers is just one of a number of initiatives launched by the government to fill the cyber skills gap in the economy. The National Cyber Security Centre’s (NCSC) CyberFirst programme was designed to help under-25s develop a passion for cybersecurity. “I’m always delighted to see more students being introduced to the exciting world of cybersecurity, and Cyber Explorers acts a fun and engaging first step on that journey,” said Chris Ensor, NCSC Deputy Director for Cyber Growth. “The UK’s cyber industry is growing rapidly, but it’s facing a skills shortage as a result – which is why it’s so important to have initiatives such as Cyber Explorers which work to uncover cyber talent and support young people across the country in exploring the career opportunities this thriving industry has to offer.”
A recent survey of 150 CISOs by cyber solutions company BSS found half of respondents claiming the current cyber skills shortage was the biggest people-related challenge facing their business. This was closely followed by a lack of applications for vacancies. Staff attrition was another area of concern, due in part to the demand for skilled professionals outstripping the availability of those experts.
It is for these reasons that Achi Lewis, EMEA vice president for cybersecurity firm Absolute Software, told Tech Monitor that he welcomes the continued efforts by the UK government to increase the number of individuals entering the cyber workforce. “Beyond education institutions, all staff across all industries should be provided with basic cyber skills as part of their training in order to understand the threats posed as well as how to detect and react to when an attack happens, not just if,” says Lewis. “This preparedness can be the vital difference between days of downtime and months of recovery, or systems staying online and protected.”