When Michael Ricard releases malware into a classroom, it’s not malicious. Ricard, a cybersecurity teacher at the Bay-Arenac ISD Career Center, believes in hands-on teaching. (Before he releases a virus for the students to battle, he also makes sure the classroom server isn’t connected to the school server.)
“(Students) come here and essentially do real-world work,” Ricard said.
Those real-world exercises in problems such as defending a system against malware, helping computers recover from viruses, building a wireless network, and more, pay off. During the two-year Cybersecurity Program, which debuted in the 2017-18 school year, students earn industry certifications qualifying them for real-world jobs and college credits.
“You’ll hear them gripe every so often because of the workload,” Ricard said. “It’s always funny because they gripe and then the very first certification they get, they’re like, ‘That’s the best feeling in the world.’ They get that feeling and then they want to go, go, go.”
Certifications – available in topics such as ethical hacking, cloud security, and server maintenance – translate into college credits or jobs.
“They do have the ability to leave here and on average make about $52,000 a year from the certifications,” Ricard said. “I had some kids leave last year that already have jobs like that.
The students who go to college reap significant benefits too. Each certification translates to 2 to 3 college credits. Most who complete the full two-year program earn between 6 and 8 certifications. Ricard has one student on track to earn 9 certifications before graduating from high school.
Ricard reminds his students that the industry expects entry-level applicants to hold college degrees.
“The cyber world is very much at a place where they want college degrees. They want a Bachelor’s Degrees, so most kids pursue college,” Ricard said.
He also reminds his students that people working in the computer industry never stop learning. Before teaching, Ricard worked in Information Technology and network security for 14 years. Currently, Ricard and two of his fellow teachers own Digital Fox, a tech firm specializing in web design and information technology consulting.
“The second you decide you don’t want to learn and grow, you may as well step off this path,’ Ricard said. “People just run right past you. It’s a very fast moving industry. I try to bring that concept into this program.”
Stay on the path, though, and it could pay off. Cybersecurity jobs are on the rise.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 32% growth in the employment of information security analysts by 2028, a much faster growth rate than the average for all occupations. The BLS adds that the percentage is even higher for those in computer systems design.
“Employment of information security analysts is projected to grow 55% in computer systems design and related services from 2018 to 2028,” states the BLS website. “The increasing adoption of cloud services by small and medium-sized businesses and a rise in cybersecurity threats will create demand for managed security services providers in this industry.”
Cybersecurity student Ian Walker hopes to study some facet of computer science in college. Walker, president of the Business Professionals of America (BPA) afternoon club at the Career Center, builds his skills in the classroom and through BPA competitions.
Walker, a senior at Garber High School in Essexville, said he’s working on a network design team for an upcoming BPA competition. The team is tasked with creating a network for a car dealership. The project includes producing budgets, blueprints, and more.
When he’s not working on that, Walker is researching BPA scholarships and applying to colleges. He hopes to eventually become an FBI agent.
Ricard taps into community resources to bring industry professionals to the classroom, helping students discover their options. He’s brought in FBI agents, technology company representatives, and global cyber security experts from Dow Chemical. An advisory board composed of industry experts oversees the program, making sure classroom topics remain relevant.
“There’s always so much going on in here,” Ricard said.
Ricard also educates the students on steps to keep themselves safe online. His top tips include:
- Store your passwords the old-fashioned way. “This sounds absolutely crazy every time I say this, but one of the most secure ways to store your passwords in written in a notebook and locked in a drawer. That’s very bare bones step that everyone should take.”
- Don’t buy a third-party anti-virus software. Ricard says the software that comes pre-installed with Windows already protects you. “Let Microsoft and Windows do its thing,” he said.
- Never open an email attachment from someone you don’t know. And carefully examine emails to make sure they aren’t fraudulent. Ricard said the people running phishing scams – sending emails purporting to be from reputable companies in order to convince recipients to reveal personal information – are getting increasingly sophisticated. Such emails used to be littered with spelling and grammatical errors. That’s no longer true. He suggests hovering over website addresses to make sure they’re legitimate. Also, carefully examine the logos. The scammers often make small errors in the logos. “Roughly 90% to 92% of malware and viruses come from email attachments.”