How CyberFirst Schools & Colleges will inspire a more diverse digital workforce in the North West

By Mo Isap, October 2022.

The leading lights of the North West cyber security scene came together for the inaugural meeting of the CyberFirst Advisory Group in early October. A National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) initiative, CyberFirst Schools & Colleges aims to encourage a diverse range of young people to pursue careers in the cyber sector – and a major objective of the scheme in the North West will be to inspire girls to take an interest in technology with a focus on computing and cyber.

As CEO of IN4 Group, the operator of HOST, the Home of Skills & Technology in Salford, I led the meeting that was appropriately held on Ada Lovelace Day. The advisory group comprises representatives from the region’s universities and key industry players, including scheme partners such as BT, IBM, KPMG and Northrop Grumman. This first meeting outlined how advisory group members can help steer CyberFirst’s activities within schools and colleges in the region.

The advisory group discussed the opportunities that exist for young women in technology – and more specifically the cyber sector. Representatives of GCHQ and the National Cyber Force highlighted their plans to create many new positions in cyber security and intelligence in Manchester and Lancashire over the next few years.

Addressing imbalance

Participants also heard how challenging the goal to increase diversity will be to achieve. Alarmingly, while 75% of the intelligence workforce at Bletchley Park during the second world war was female, the gender balance in the cyber security workforce across the UK has swung in the opposite direction and now stands at a disappointing 22%. In addition, the cyber security skills gap continues to grow with an estimated current shortfall of 14,000 roles.

To build a diverse cyber workforce, we have an ambition to see more than 200,000 young women pursue careers in STEM in the North West over the next 10 years. This is the start of long journey, and to achieve it, we are going to need industry professionals, academia and local communities to work together. This advisory group will play a vital role in facilitating that. It will help to coordinate the people and activities that can inspire and influence girls in our schools today.

This is an opportunity for people working in the industry right now to leave a legacy – to inspire the next generation. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it – and that’s where the CyberFirst Schools & Colleges Advisory Group comes in. It’s time to show girls what this industry’s all about - make it feel relevant to them and help them see it as a path they can follow.

Taking action

More than 500 schools have already been invited to apply to become a CyberFirst Recognised School, and participating organisations will get their first chance to inspire this next generation at two Empower events taking place in November: at the AJ Bell Stadium in Salford and at Blackburn Rover’s Ewood Park.

These events will bring together 1,000 girls from local primary schools to meet industry-leading figures working at the forefront of cyber security and intelligence.

With many further activities and events in the pipeline, participants in the advisory group will be asked to provide suggestions and share feedback from their colleagues and networks, as they look to shape the direction of the CyberFirst Schools & Colleges scheme.

“The NCSC is committed to encouraging more people to consider a career in cyber security and improving diversity across the sector. This isn’t something NCSC can do alone, both academia and industry play a crucial part to make it happen, especially at a local level. I’m really pleased to see the North West CyberFirst Advisory Group take up that challenge and look forward to seeing how they will support our CyberFirst Schools and Colleges scheme, growing the local skills ecosystem.”

Chris Ensor, NCSC Deputy Director for cyber growth

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