IT security skills shortage demands training, hiring rethink: Earthwave

Skilled IT security staff are in such short supply in Australia that government agencies will suffer as restrictions on access to sensitive systems leave them unable to source enough domestic and foreign workers to deal with escalating cyber threats, a security service provider has warned.

Although his company is growing fast – 43-strong managed security services provider Earthwave is hiring seven people to cope with more than 30 per cent annual growth – exactly none of those staff will come from Australia, founder and CEO Carlo Minassian tells CSO Australia.

“All of them are going to come from overseas,” he explains. “Based on the demand caused by all this hacking and media attention that we’re seeing, the amount of pipeline we’ve got will double this year. But the staff to meet that just won’t come from overseas.”

“Australia has around 60,000 IT people and less than 10 per cent of those are in IT security – and everyone is bidding for them. The banks, government, major corporations, and businesses are bidding for the same resources.”

Sourcing staff from overseas presents its own problems, however: although it’s possible to get skilled staff through the government’s 457 visa program, many of those staff struggle to get the government security clearance necessary to do IT security work for many government agencies.

This leaves security companies bolstering their numbers with skilled security staff who, due to national-security concerns, must be kept away from the most sensitive government work. Approval for such work requires security credentials that take months of extensive background checks, interviews, and vetting of foreign interactions.

“I’m limited in the quality of the people and candidates I can put in front of Defence to work on Australian government based contracts that require clearances,” Minassian says. “I and half my staff are cleared to the level of secret and highly protected, but it took us six months to get to that. You couldn’t get anyone in on a 457 visa and get them a job [in government IT security]; it’s just not on.”

In the end, these conflicting dynamics will create problems for a government that has followed in the steps of the US government by recently announcing a major increase in investment in IT security staff. The US Department of Defence, for example, recently announced that it would add over 4000 IT staff to the 900 existing employees of the Defense Department’s Cyber Command in order to better combat emerging threats in cyberspace.

Australia’s commitment to invest $1.46 billion into improving national cyber defences includes equally ambitious staffing targets for the new Australian Cyber Security Centre – but without a fundamental rethink of the way Australian IT security experts are sourced and hired, Minassian says its goals are going to be difficult to reach.

“All the efforts of the Australian government are really dwarfed by the size and the threat and the number of agencies involved that we need to protect,” he explains. “It’s not just Defence that needs protection, but any other critical infrastructure. Any business that holds infrastructure and manufacturing capability is a constant target, and the only solution will be to look to contractors that have the necessary intellectual capital and scale to help them defend their infrastructure.”

Although foreign workers offer a short-term solution for some local security services providers, Minassian warns that without a rethink of our hiring practices, Australia is going to find itself outpaced by ever more-innovative and opportunistic cyber-criminals that will see our government and business interests as soft targets.

“The IP that these defence contractors, vendors and service providers have is something that governments cannot replicate overnight,” he explains. “We’re just not mature enough in our thinking. The education process in terms of finding and educating the right courses to get students and university graduates interested in this industry, is not in place right now.”

Instead, many of the best candidates are those who don’t fit into conventional educational models, he says; many are teenagers and high-school dropouts, and many have come from overseas: Argentina and Brazil are “untapped”, Minassian says, as are countries like Russia, Belarus, China, and India.

“That kind of recruitment simply doesn’t exist in the Australian government today,” he says. “You can’t just give these people a normal job and expect them to work 9 to 5, and to behave like your other professional employees. But they need to be given an opportunity to get into the professional world, and to get commercialised. A lot of them are out there, but they just aren’t being given the opportunities.”

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