The Promise Of: Raleigh group fills need in cybersecurity by preparing digital workforce

By   – Reporter, Triangle Business Journal
Dec 18, 2020, 7:13am EST

The following content is original to the Triangle Business Journal and can be viewed here.

There are more than 20,000 cybersecurity jobs open in North Carolina according to CyberSeek, a project of the Computing Technology Industry Association, the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education and Burning Glass Technologies. That’s good news if you’re on the job-searching side, but when you’re a business with one of those 20,000 jobs posted and you’re scrambling to hire talent, it’s a tough market.

Tony Marshall, president and CEO of Innovative Systems Group, saw the growing need for workers skilled and experienced in cybersecurity, so he launched ISG’s cybersecurity apprenticeship program in November 2013. Although his company dates to 1998, when it primarily provided custom software to the forest products industry, apprenticeships to provide hands-on experience in cybersecurity was a new phenomenon. When ISG started the program, Marshall said it was the first of its kind in the country.

Not only was it a different model for developing skills training, it was also a different approach to the business of education, as Marshall explains: “Eighty-five percent of our revenue is derived from the work that our employees do while in apprenticeship. The problem with most current education models is that the organizations make their money by placing butts in seats and not by getting people [engaged in] work. Our revenue is derived when people go to work. We designed the model like this on purpose.”

It’s a win for the businesses utilizing the apprentices because they are working under the supervision and mentorship of ISG’s cybersecurity pros; but it’s equally a win for the student apprentices who are paid roughly $48,000 a year while in an apprenticeship. “Graduates of our program haven’t made less than $85,000 a year and, of the graduates who are available to work, 87 percent are working,” Marshall said.

In the beginning, ISG recruited students from the military; the initial graduates were, on average, 43 years old and many were disabled veterans. While the military continues to be a focus for recruiting and ISG has an office at Fort Bragg as well as in Raleigh, they have expanded the search for students beyond veterans and enlisted service members.

This fall, ISG launched a Cybersecurity Pilot Program with the Women’s Business Center of North Carolina (WBCNC), aimed at recruiting and training young women of diverse backgrounds, aged 18 to 25, in 11 eastern North Carolina counties, including Edgecombe, Franklin, Johnston, Vance, and Warren. The cybersecurity program dovetails with the entrepreneurship training that has been a mainstay at WBCNC.

“The mission of the Women’s Business Center of North Carolina is to promote economic self-sufficiency for all women in North Carolina through entrepreneurship. We empower women by offering tools and support to establish businesses, stabilize their companies, generate sustainable profits, strategize for future growth and contribute to the growth and economic development of the community,” explains Roberta McCullough, executive director of WBCNC.

The collaboration with ISG to pilot a cybersecurity training program will prepare young women for careers in technology. The plan, McCullough said, is that ISG will provide 30 hours per week of pre-apprentice education and training virtually, over an eight-week period, essentially preparing them to become certified in Comp TIA A+.

“They will then be positioned to continue hands-on training through ISG and its partnerships with workforce development departments in certain counties,” she continues. “Additionally, WBCNC will offer entrepreneurship training to the candidates over a three-week period. Together, WBCNC and ISG will prepare the participants to enter the STEM industry as a career or as an entrepreneur.”

The program, which is supported by Truist Financial Corp., will start in early 2021. The application period is through Dec. 21, and the initial goal is to enroll 15 students.

Rural counties in eastern North Carolina may seem an unlikely spot to recruit students for IT careers, but many of the jobs can be done remotely and can bring stability to some of the state’s areas in greatest need of economic development.

“All you have to do is train people in IT skills and the work can be done all over the world, from any inner city or rural area,” Marshall said. “I don’t see poor people that have IT experience. That’s because if they have IT experience, they aren’t poor anymore.”

ISG’s largest customer is North Carolina state government, and Marshall says they provide cybersecurity services for a number of state agencies. Recently they have also been contracted to educate, train and employ residents of the Charlotte Housing Authority, which he said is in partnership with the Charlotte Area Fund and Charlotte Works.

“We have the need to fill jobs, but there’s a skills gap,” Marshall adds. “Historically, we’ve not trained Black and Brown communities in technology.”

The ISG apprenticeship program not only trains workers, it fills another critical need by creating a more loyal employee, as Marshall explains, apprentices become vested in the companies where they work. “Employers are having trouble finding workers in cybersecurity, but turnover can be a big problem as well; apprentices are incredibly loyal after you have invested in them.”

The role ISG plays is to invest in employee development on behalf of the businesses and agencies that it serves. Apprentices work as W2 employees for ISG; if the client decides to hire them when the apprenticeship is completed they can do so. “It’s the perfect ‘try before you buy’ scenario,” Marshall said. “We make sure the job gets done for the firm or government agency, and if they don’t hire the worker we help find other opportunities for our graduates.”

One of the strategies that has enabled ISG to procure more contracts is labeling their services as a third-party value-added vendor. “We identify an organization that has access to the customers we want to serve but that lacks the ability to provide cybersecurity. We provide the service and they put their name on our work product with a mark-up, which is a win-win scenario with the exception of the fact that we never build our brand,” Marshall explains.

One example of this is ePlus, a 30-year-old IT tech integrator based in Herndon, Virginia, with offices in Morrisville and Charlotte. Dease Moore, senior security consultant at ePlus, said the company, which works with some of the largest corporations in the Fortune 100 to small mom and pop entrepreneurs, has been partnering with ISG for three or four years.

“I wish more organizations could do what Tony does to bring qualified people to the table,” Moore said. In the course of a year, ePlus will typically assign three or four projects to ISG, each running two or three months.

“My hope is that more large companies will give small minority-owned businesses work. Small businesses have to do a lot of work up-front to show their value, and for the large companies, the biggest thing they can do is provide mentorship. I hope and pray as relationships grow that more larger corporations will groom and mentor minority-business enterprises.”

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