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Pikes Peak Community College launches cybersecurity internship program for high schoolers

Clearing the way


Students train at Boecore, a local aerospace and defense engineering firm involved in cyber security. - HELEN ROBINSON
  • Helen Robinson
  • Students train at Boecore, a local aerospace and defense engineering firm involved in cyber security.
Colorado Springs’ cybersecurity workforce pipeline got a noteworthy add-on this summer. Partnering with local employers, Pikes Peak Community College has built a pioneering cybersecurity internship program for high school students. It’s the first in Colorado and one of just a handful nationally.

As of June 20, students from Colorado Springs and Peyton school districts became some of the country’s youngest paid cybersecurity interns. The six-week program has been designed to introduce promising students to real-world cybersecurity work, and introduce employers to some of the best and brightest of the workforce of the 2020s.

A National Institute for Standards and Technology grant funds the program. PPCC trains students in work ethic, dress and professional behavior, and provides additional field trips to a range of cybersecurity environments. The program reaches students when they are “easier to hook with why it would be fun to work with technology” and meets a real need among cybersecurity employers, says Debbie Sagen, PPCC’s vice president of workforce development.

While most companies have sophisticated college internship programs, none of them have worked out how to translate that into high school internships, says Sagen.

“As we talked to companies, there were several — particularly defense contractors — that said, ‘If we could identify kids in the 10th grade and work with them at that point and help them make good choices, so they could pass a security clearance without having any issues, and ... work toward the industry certifications, and if their high school curriculum could help them follow that path, we would hire them when they graduate. They could come to work for us right away and we would put them in important, well-paid jobs,’” Sagen says. “And when we heard that we said, ‘OK, we’ve got to go do this.’”

The significance of the program lies in the way it has overcome a range of obstacles to extend paid summer internships to high school students, opening the door to a more robust cybersecurity pipeline in the Springs. Most obstacles arise from interns’ ages, and include labor law and human resource issues, paperwork and high school credit, lack of teacher supervision for summer internships, and the need for a centralized coordination model (to avoid overwhelming employer partners with calls from multiple school districts).

PPCC’s Cyber Prep team, which developed the program, took the hurdles one by one: They sought expertise from employer partner Boecore Inc. on labor law compliance; they hired Colorado Springs School District 11 cybersecurity instructor Bill Tomeo to oversee interns and field employer questions; and they drew administrative paperwork and high school credit requirements from District 11, Academy District 20 and Peyton’s school district. PPCC acts as the coordinating organization.

Sagen says the few other high school cybersecurity internships around the country usually consist of high school instructors helping students undertake work experience at the school district or as a group project during class time. This is different, Sagen says.

“The students in this internship program are paid by the company; they’re earning a wage,” she says. “We are giving the companies a $500 stipend to help defray the cost of paying their students.”

PPCC’s employer partners are excited about the program’s potential and the quality of the interns.

“I was floored. ... When we interviewed these young people that are 17, 18 — the maturity level, the energy level, what they understand about technology ... is absolutely amazing,” says Patty Bonvallet, technology development manager for Boecore.

Bonvallet says Boecore has college internships, but there is “no way” they could have established a high school internship alone.

“When we learned they were going to be providing internships for ... high school students ... it was absolutely intriguing and exciting and something we know is desperately needed, so we wanted to be part of that,” she says.

Bonvallet says PPCC’s experts knew how to define the necessary skills and competencies and how to implement a phased approach to training that would see students, in the long term, earn certifications and degrees applicable to the cybersecurity industry.

Sean Kearney, vice president of gaming, simulation and innovation for TechWise, says he was thrilled PPCC took the initiative to launch the program. “They’ve brought in some amazing people with a lot of industry experience to put together a program that’s really based in preparing people for the real world, so that’s impressive,” he says.

Kearney says the internship program was “somewhat in the proof-of-concept phase,” and he expected companies would jump at the chance to become employer partners. He says internships are among the best ways for high school students to be “exposed to a significant industry that’s completely undersourced.”

Sagen says the Cyber Prep team found high school students are succeeding with PPCC’s college-level curriculum. “If a high school student says in the 10th or 11th grade, ‘I know this is really what I want to be doing,’ they have the skills at that point in their lives to start doing this work seriously,” Sagen says.

To be on board for the first internships, students submitted resumés and companies self-selected. After a day of interviews, prospective interns and employers ranked their choices. Each company built their own program based on the internship best practices for employers provided by PPCC, so each internship is different.

“We see a lot of hope ... that we can start influencing these young people and really bring them up through our workforce and produce some fine professionals that are going to help the industry and help the local economy,” Bonvallet says.

So far, six companies and seven interns have signed on, and the Cyber Prep team is in talks with other potential employer partners. Companies interested in participating can email debbie.sagen@ppcc.edu.

This article originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Business Journal.

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