New program meets need for cybersecurity specialization

Aug 19, 2020 | 8:54 AM

Every 39 seconds. That’s how often malicious hackers launch attacks on computers and networks worldwide, according to a study by the University of Maryland. Cybercrime is a global crisis that is only getting bigger, and the effects aren’t limited to major corporations. Even small businesses now require systems to protect their sensitive data, a need that Alexandria Technical & Community College’s new Cybersecurity certificate program is designed to address.

Coursework for the 30-credit program is offered exclusively online, offering maximum accessibility for students as well as individuals already in professional roles to complete certification in this vital area of expertise.

“Every business now needs to have cybersecurity coverage,” noted Vickie McLain, who joined ATCC’s computer science faculty this summer. “If there isn’t someone already on staff, this function has to be outsourced  ΜΆ  and there is a huge shortage of qualified specialists in this field.”

With more than two decades’ experience as a cybersecurity professional and educator, McLain forecasts exponential growth in the field as more and more “smart” devices are introduced. “We’ve got fitness trackers, smart phones, cars, watches and even appliances now connected to the Internet. When these are synced to business systems, you create more vulnerability to data theft and malware attacks.”

ATCC’s Cybersecurity certificate complements the college’s associate of applied science (AAS) degree program in Cybersecurity, Virtualization & Networking. Students can also apply the 30 credits from the certificate program toward the 60 credits needed for the Computer Information Systems associate of science degree that can be transferred to a four-year program at institutions like the College of St. Scholastica, with which ATCC holds an articulation agreement. ATCC is currently working on agreements with other universities.

“The combination of online and on-campus coursework in our certificate and degree programs brings a lot of flexibility,” stated CIO and Dean of Business & Information Technology Steve Richards. He added that Alexandria’s status as a regional hub for business and manufacturing provides unique opportunities for collaboration between ATCC and industry, including hands-on, real-world cybersecurity experience via student internships.

McLain agrees that practical application of the concepts learned in ATCC courses is key to preparing students for success. “A lot of the curriculum involves projects. Our goal is for students to begin their careers having already experienced the challenges they’ll face in the workplace,” she explained. “We stress problem-solving skills. Technology is constantly changing, so the specific tools or software aren’t as important as being able to figure out how to use them.”

McLain added that cybersecurity offers a wide range of career paths, from security software coding to managing an organization’s firewall defenses or even operating as a penetration tester, helping to identify vulnerabilities in systems by breaking into them.

Some professional positions that ATCC students can aspire to include information security officer, security assessor, security engineer, forensics expert and security administrator.

While the new certificate program is ideal for companies that want to upgrade the skills of existing staff or bring security in-house, it also offers opportunities for individuals looking to make a career change, McLain said. “I’ve had students come in with degrees in English, math, even law. Cybersecurity firms look for potential employees from diverse backgrounds, because they often have specific knowledge of what things need to be protected based on past experience.”

As a profession, cybersecurity has many attractions, McLain said, noting that in the Twin Cities market, an entry-level position may start at $60,000 a year, with salaries for professionals with additional education and experience ranging $100,000-$120,000 and beyond. In addition, cybersecurity professionals often work remotely, allowing them to seek positions with businesses across the country and around the world.

The intellectual challenge of the work is another powerful draw, said McLain. “You are faced with different situations every day, new problems to solve. And there are so many aspects to cybersecurity that students can find the niche that’s right for them. It’s a job that is fun and provides an opportunity to help people.”

For more information about ATCC’s Cybersecurity certificate program, Cybersecurity, Virtualization & Networking degree or other IT offerings, contact the Information Center at 320.762.4600 or

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