WATERVILLE — Thomas College is set to receive $974,000 in federal money to expand its cybersecurity program and help more students gain a foothold in a fast-growing, potentially lucrative field.
The funding is part of $10.2 million earmarked for Maine colleges and universities and workforce development programs, from the massive omnibus spending bill approved by Congress last month.
The money Thomas expects to receive is to be used in several ways, including tuition assistance, scholarships, technology upgrades and professional development for staff members and students, according to college Provost Thomas Edwards.
“We’re all impacted, we all rely on security,” Edwards said. “It’s just like the electricity and the other kinds of infrastructure that we have. We just have to invest in infrastructure and we have to invest in the knowledge so that we have good people who are educated who can keep up with the pace of the technology and the change.”
Frank Appunn, a cybersecurity professor at Thomas, said as technology has advanced, it has created more value for companies — and more risks. Cybersecurity is the work of minimizing those risks and defending that value, he said.
“Technology enables us to deliver more better and new things at more affordable prices,” Appunn said. “However, when we use technology, we also introduce new risks. So as technology creates value, we must also defend from the abuses that can happen from technology.”
Cybersecurity experts are needed in several different sectors of the economy: businesses, government agencies, nonprofits, schools, hospitals and more.
Criminals can use malware to stop business or steal personal data, and sometimes they are looking for unexpected information, such as the name of a child who has never opened a bank account, Appunn said, whose identity can then be used for money laundering.
As the use of technology across industries grows, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many into remote or hybrid work, demand is great for cybersecurity knowledge.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median pay for an information security analyst in 2021 was $102,600, and job openings for these workers is expected to increase 35% over the 10 years ending in 2031, much greater than the average job increase of 5% over the same period.
About 19,500 openings for information security analysts are projected each year until 2031.
“We know that these are high-paying jobs. We know that these are high-paying careers,” Edwards said. “We also know through the experience with COVID that the ability to operate in a hybrid or online environment — a tech-rich environment — is going to be really, really crucial to the economy of the future.
“By looking at students that we serve and providing them a direct pathway into a really high-end career path, we think that this is a win for everybody.”
Appunn said Thomas College has relationships with several companies that have offered jobs to cybersecurity graduates, and the college could easily place twice as many students just with those companies.
“Corporations are struggling to find cyber-skilled people,” Appunn said.
The program at Thomas is designed to be available to students of any background, Appunn said. The university now offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in cybersecurity, a master’s of business administration with an emphasis on cybersecurity and a certificate in advanced study.
Appunn has been involved in developing the program since it began in 2013. He said part of the curriculum’s goal is to provide a broad education that allows students to graduate with technical, communication and business skills.
Danielle Demillo, for example, studied criminal justice at Thomas, and found herself working at a bank, doing physical security and focusing on money laundering. She, however, found her company — and the financial industry — were seeing increasing occurrences of digital attacks. She said she had opportunity to do some technology-related work and enjoyed it.
Although she did not have a computer science background, Demillo decided to get a master’s degree in cybersecurity at Thomas. She had to do some upfront studying on her own to be able to keep up with the technical skills, but graduated with her degree in 2020. She found a higher-level job a few weeks later.
Demillo now works as an assurance practice manager at Tyler Technologies Inc., based in Plano, Texas. She manages people who test security systems to find weaknesses.
She said Thomas’ classes prepared her for the role, which requires technical knowledge, managing others and handling budgets.
“Even if it didn’t teach me everything, it taught me how to think, how to figure things out, which is huge,” Demillo said. “It’s not just the material. It’s how to use the skills to figure out things that you don’t know, which I think was my big takeaway from the program. It’s been a literal game changer for my career.”