A teacher helping students on their computer. Delta College cybersecurity student Jerome Mendez helps classmate Terri Hutchins restore an Ethernet connection that ensures the computer’s wired network hardware is operable. PHOTOS COURTESY OF DELTA COLLEGE STUDENT LONNI GILMORE

Terri Hutchins’ inspiration for a career change came when a menacing digital virus hijacked her home computer.

The Midland County resident, who at the time was working as a medical technician, wanted to learn to fight back.

“Frankly, I was tired of being hacked and spammed,” Hutchins said. “I was sheltered about the technology out there and was ignorant about what was in front of me on the screen. I wanted to embrace and understand what I was looking at.” 

Hutchins is one of a new wave of Michigan students preparing for a career in cybersecurity – known also as information security and technology. With computers a part of nearly every industry and consumers increasingly living life online, demand for professionals who are able to keep digital data secure is growing by the day.

High demand, high salaries

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, an online Michigan-based career-tracking system, those with a degree in cybersecurity face virtually no unemployment. The field is expected to grow by 35% in Michigan through 2026, with more than 240 annual projected job openings. The Talent and Economic Development (Ted) Department of Michigan notes that the median average wage is $56,000 for those with an associate degree and $92,000 for holders of a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity.

Kristopher Howery, an associate professor in Delta’s cybersecurity program, said the two-year curriculum readies students for positions in top companies as well as prepares them to pursue future education and training. Classes are offered face-to-face and online.

“This program can be done from virtually anywhere,” Howery said. “We have local and global companies ready to hire our students as soon as they graduate. Some even want them as interns while they are finishing their degrees.” 

Some of the students seek desired certifications such as Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA), a credential awarded to IT professionals who pass the CCNA exam that validates they have the skills to develop a security infrastructure, recognize threats and vulnerabilities to networks and mitigate security threats.

“With these added credentials, students are even more in demand,” Howery said.

Duties in cybersecurity careers include planning, implementing, upgrading or monitoring safety measures for the protection of computer networks and information; ensuring appropriate security controls are in place that will safeguard digital files and vital electronic infrastructure; and responding to computer security breaches and viruses.

Huge opportunities for women

Like many careers long dominated by men, cybersecurity has a gender gap – only 11% of cybersecurity professionals are women, national labor statistics show. But Hutchins sees the field as a welcome change and a sustainable path to a high-paying career.

The classes are not easy, however. Hutchins suggests fellow students be prepared. 

“It takes a lot of dedication and time,” she said. “You have to be committed to do the homework, pay attention and ask questions. It is nice, though, that most of my coursework can be done at home. I do have to come into the computer lab for certain assignments and tests, but at least I can do the work on my time schedule.”

As she develops her knowledge of cybersecurity, Hutchins is already in demand from local churches, family and friends seeking her advice on protecting their privacy and data online.

Hutchins advises those with a penchant for computers to consider jumping into this lucrative profession.

“If you want to have fun at your job, are able to balance your workload, are flexible and can adapt to change, this is perfect,” she said.

Data protection is a top priority

According to Ted, Michigan is at a talent pipeline crossroads. The state’s aging workforce is retiring faster than employers can find sufficiently skilled replacements. Projections show the state will experience a Professional Trades workforce gap of more than 545,000 openings through 2026.

Careers in cybersecurity are among those most in demand by employers. With 84% of Americans having home computers and 77% owning smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center, the need to protect our digital lives is constant – and evolving.    

Job postings for cybersecurity positions have grown three times as fast as openings for IT jobs overall. Business Facilities, a magazine that covers economic growth, ranks Michigan’s cybersecurity industry third in the nation for potential growth.

Postings in Michigan include those as a network security analyst, security and network operations specialist, IT security engineer and cybersecurity analyst. An associate degree is all that is necessary in many cases. Employers such as Netsource One, Dow Chemical and the Michigan State Police Cyber Section are among those recruiting interns and graduates. 

‘I like being ahead of the game’

Like his classmate Hutchins, Lansing resident Jerome Mendez started out in another field before becoming enamored with the real-world excitement of cybersecurity.

“I was originally going to earn a degree in mechanical engineering,” Mendez said. “But after a while, it just wasn’t my passion. I’ve always loved technology, taking things apart and seeing how they worked, then putting them back together. My family and friends always call me when they have a tech problem.”

After two years of studying a variety of computer, science, social studies, communication and health courses, Mendez is ready to earn his associate of applied science and join the corps of professionals keeping the World Wide Web secure.  

“This program opens you up to more than just network security and stopping hackers,” Mendez said.

“I can find employment in a lot of technological areas: programming, software, app security – they all need the basics that this program teaches. Privacy all begins with having a secure device. I want the challenge of being ahead of the next new thing. With technology moving so fast, security is always going to be needed. I like being ahead of the game.”