MUSKEGON — Even before colleges started offering curricula centered on cybersecurity, Susan Rhem-Westhoff was exploring that realm with her students at the Muskegon Area Career Tech Center.

Rhem-Westhoff has been a mainstay at the Tech Center throughout its 18 years of operation and serves as an instructor for the Internet, Network & Security Technology program.

“This is a two-year program, and kids in the second year write their own ticket” with what they want to focus on, Rhem-Westhoff said. “I asked them 17 years ago what they wanted to learn about, and they said computer security. We started doing that and it’s just grown and evolved.”

With a strong focus on cybersecurity, the center offers two classes of 26 students for its Internet, Network & Security Technology program. The program, which also explores topics such as computer networking and programming, is helping prepare students for the grossly underemployed cybersecurity industry. 

Expertise in cybersecurity can be applied in a variety of ways in the marketplace — from working for private companies or managed I.T. service providers to applying the skills in the defense industry.

Program graduates have gone on to work at places including the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Security Agency (NSA) and Howmet Aerospace in Whitehall. Rhem-Westhoff said that most program graduates go to college directly, an essential step in reaching high-paying jobs.

Problem solvers wanted

The program allows students to acquire both college credit and industry certification, allowing them to hit the ground running at the next level.

“We work very closely with not only our business advisory committees but also the colleges,” Rhem-Westhoff said. “We have a great partnership with (Muskegon Community College). Our program absolutely dovetails and rolls right into their networking programs. They also have a new networking security program that they’ve added, which is awesome.”

With four-year schools, Rhem-Westhoff identified both Ferris State University and Davenport University as strong schools for a cybersecurity-focused education.

Rhem-Westhoff said that the typical student that thrives in her own program tends to be a tenacious problem solver.

With cybersecurity threats constantly evolving, the curriculum also changes to stay in lockstep.

“That’s what makes it so interesting,” Rhem-Westhoff said. “And the kids love that, too — you’re not going to get bored. (Attackers) only need to find one way in, and you have to find all the ways in. It’s a great field for life-long learners because everything you learned yesterday can change.”

Kyle Wilcox — who went through the program in 2015 and 2016 — went directly to work in I.T. for the Navy, where his job focuses on cybersecurity. Wilcox was formerly stationed off the coast of Japan, and is now transitioning to his new post in Suffolk, Va.

The 22-year-old said the center’s program provided him with the basics and fundamentals of networking and cybersecurity that he was able to build on in the Navy.

While Wilcox spends his time scanning for threats, managing hundreds of assets, conducting vulnerability assessments and a variety of other crucial cybersecurity functions, he said that when he retires from the Navy, he hopes to apply his skills in the private sector.

“Any information system in the world is hackable — that’s a given fact,” Wilcox said. “The difference is how hackable is it? A lot of companies fail to properly secure their information systems. I think it would be beneficial if myself, and others like me, take what we know to industries to say, ‘Hey, let’s improve your security posture.’”

Talent dearth

Alan Rea, professor in the Department of Business Information Systems at Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business, has also seen increased interest in the area of cybersecurity — and with good reason.

Rea said cybersecurity is one of the top two growth areas in information technology and computer science, with 2.5 jobs per every person that wants one. Also, the median salary is currently more than $98,000.

National labor analytics firm Emsi underscored this overwhelming demand in a 2020 report, pointing to the fact that demand is twice as high as supply. For every 100 job postings, there are only 48 qualified candidates, per the report.

“(Cybersecurity) appeals to so many different types of people because there are many things to do with it,” Rea said. “You don’t have to sit all day long in front of a computer and look at viruses.”

Four years ago, Western Michigan University launched a master’s degree in cybersecurity and has turned out more than 25 graduates so far.

Last fall, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the university also launched a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity.

“You’re going to see more and more cybersecurity degrees, if you haven’t already, coming online,” Rea said, “because there is a demand.”