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Jessica Gulick
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Did the Cybersecurity Workforce Gap Distract Us From the Leak?

Cyber games can play a critical role in re-engaging our workforce and addressing the employee retention crisis.

What if our nation invested in its human cybersecurity workforce as much as we have innovative tools? Many would answer, "We have!" And they would be partially correct; we have invested to recruit new talent, relentlessly pursuing early career cyber pros, through college programs, school partnerships, or just readjusting our salary and benefits packages yet again. We've been trying to fill the gap with a variety of programs.

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Undoubtedly, we must address the 500,000 unfilled positions as nearly two-thirds of cyber pros report staff shortages at their own organizations. But as we've poured more and more resources into filling the gap, have we missed a significant leak in our current workforce funnel?

Our cyber community has fixated on the workforce gap at the top of the funnel for over a decade — and clearly the deficit is apt to continue as our digital lives expand. But there is another story lost in the shadow of this looming problem: There are several leaks and missing development paths in our workforce funnel.

Cyber's Overlooked Retention Problem
The sizable workforce gap is hiding cybersecurity's industrywide problem of employee retention, development, and engagement. The constant need for fresh talent isn't just due to the growing space we're in; in fact, the gap is in experienced roles, not junior levels. Our colleagues are leaving their jobs in droves.

Under normal circumstances, jobs in cybersecurity are inherently stressful; then the pandemic kicked things up another notch. In cybersecurity, the effect of stress and risk of burnout has been described as "reaching epidemic levels and has increased exponentially during the COVID-19 crisis." According to a recent Ponemon survey, 75% of respondents agreed that the high-pressure environment in SOCs and the workload are causing analysts to burn out quickly, and average tenure in an organization is just two years.

But it's not just burnout that's triggering cyber pros to exit organizations. An ISACA study indicated 66% of cyber pros agreed it's difficult to retain talent, and half cited the main reason for staff leaving was limited promotion and development opportunities.

Cyber professionals are bored protecting the same network each day, and tired of losing the internal fight on the right way to secure a network. Their jobs, once full of challenge and pride, over time become mundane and tedious. Fine-tuning skills and continuing to intellectually challenge seasoned professionals is essential to combating the drain happening on our teams. It's critical that we address this issue immediately before the brain drain becomes even more acute with an aging workforce.

Focus on Talent Development, Engagement Planning
The reason why our people feel under-developed is pretty well documented: "Continuous cyber-training is lacking, in part, because there seems to be no time to learn while chronically fighting the next conflagration." Prioritizing employee development is a challenge we need to meet head-on.

In fact, a NIST whitepaper concluded, "The current and projected workforce needs must be met not only by training more cybersecurity personnel, but also by raising the bar on their skills, aptitude and ability to collaborate. Cybersecurity competitions can play a critical role in this mandate."

Cyber games as a development tool are even more critical than ever before. Development as a work "to-do" just adds extra strain on an already fragile employee. Play has a different role. It's been credited with the ability to combat boredom, stress, and loneliness, and results have shown that play at work could "reduce employees' experienced burnout which in turn lead to their innovation behaviors."

Got Game?
Cyber competitions are a game in which we all win. By addressing our industrywide problem of employee retention and engagement through training games that develop our employees, minimizing burnout and churn, we can start to make inroads on the all-too-real cybersecurity workforce gap. "Since training games are 'practice by doing,' learners retain up to 75% of what they learn, a 25% to 70% increase over other forms of training. When employees retain more, they perform better."

Game platforms like TryHackMe, HacktheBox, SANS NetWars, Packet Wars, and US Cyber Range impart skills in a fun and engaging manner. Initiatives like the US Cyber Games elevate the discussion from an annual cyber competition to a traveling sports team competing against other nations globally — a whole new level of cyber-as-a-sport. 

The cybersecurity games market space is evolving quickly and one to watch for not just its growth but its impact on the community.

Jessica Gulick is Commissioner of the US Cyber Games, a multi-phased cybersecurity program recruiting the US Cyber Team; CEO of Katzcy, a woman-owned growth strategy and marketing firm; and, founder of PlayCyber, a new business line promoting cyber games and ... View Full Bio
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