Finding tomorrow's cyber-specialists

In the current jobs market, people often complain about a shortage of young talent. But is the skills drought myth or reality? Are employers looking for the right qualities and in the right places? According to Mary-Jo de Leeuw, inventor and co-founder of the Cyberwerkplaats, there's plenty of talent out there. Finding it requires an astute eye and a willingness to appreciate the ambitions and qualities of the young. Employers shouldn't focus exclusively on formal qualifications. "We adapt our learning pathways to the talents of young people. Participation isn't compulsory, and they can do the things they like. There's no corporate hoo-ha, everything is focused on day-to-day practice." Mary-Jo explains how she turned her frustration into a strong, practice-oriented concept and describes the strides made by the Cyberwerkplaats in the space of a year, thanks to support from SIDN Fund.

Mary-Jo-de-Leeuw

The Cyberwerkplaats ('Cyber-workshop') is a place where young people are trained to become real cyber-specialists. "Youngsters aged between fifteen and twenty-five can come to us to learn programming, hacking, robot control and other similar skills. What distinguishes us from a hacker space is that we put young talent in contact with potential employers. At the same time as getting training from us, our youngsters do internships with prospective employers. So each can get to know the other on a noncommittal basis." It's proving to be a successful format: about 80 per cent of the interns have so far been offered jobs by the host firms.

All young people are welcome at the Cyberwerkplaats. It doesn't matter what qualifications they've got, or whether they own a laptop. At an intake interview, each newcomer's qualities and motivation level are assessed. "We work with 'building blocks'. Our learners decide which blocks to do. In formal vocational education, you have to jump through all sorts of hoops to get a qualification. It's completely different here; you decide for yourself what classes to go to. Of course, we also provide important background information about things such as ICT law. But our focus is firmly on twenty-first-century skills."

Succes born on frustation

The Cyberwerkplaats concept was the product of frustration. "Clients often ask me for advice on where to look for talent. I steer them in the right direction and tell them how things work in the community. But still they tell me that they can't find the people they need. At the same time, my inbox is overflowing with e-mails from young people who maybe don't have much to show in terms of qualifications, but clearly do have ability and potential. If we just keep bemoaning the lack of talent, we'll never get anywhere."

Bringing a supply of talent on line requires more than government-led changes to the school curriculum. A new mindset is needed to bring talent to the fore and put it to use. That's inherently difficult in mainstream education. "Everything changes so quickly. Teachers aren't immersed in the IT and cybersecurity world on a daily basis, as we are. So it's hard for them to incorporate each new development into their teaching." At the Cyberwerkplaats, teaching isn't constrained by a curriculum, so everything can be tailored to the needs of the moment. "If a big DDoS attack is making waves, we can rearrange our building blocks immediately, and spend three weeks exploring all the ins and outs of DDoS attacks."

Update after year 1

Mary-Jo came up with the Cyberwerkplaats concept late in 2016 and sounded out Anouk Vos on the possibility of developing it together. Exploratory talks were subsequently held with various municipal authorities and the team was expanded. In August 2017, the first successful pilot was run. By that stage, the Cyberwerkplaats was attracting interest from organisations and education departments across the Netherlands and beyond. Thanks partly to support from SIDN Fund, Mary-Jo and Anouk were able to continue giving their all to the project and press on with expansion. "The grant from SIDN Fund made a world of difference. Obviously the cash injection was very welcome, but it also meant a lot to know that people had confidence in us and our product. We're really pleased that SIDN Fund wants to link up with us." The Cyberwerkplaats now has permanent premises equipped with a workbench, multiple workstations and a table football table. Project Leader Nasya has also joined the team and the facility is open two days a week instead of one.

SIDN Fund

SIDN's mission is connecting people and organisations to promote safe and convenient digital living. SIDN Fund was set up in 2014 to support that mission. The foundation works to build a better internet for everyone by providing grants to projects that help to make the internet stronger, promote user empowerment or utilise the internet in innovative ways. By doing so, it contributes to the prosperity and wellbeing of the nation.

Tomorrow's cyber-specialist

"I have complete faith in our concept. Last week, I was at a high-profile conference in London telling people about the project. The response was encouraging; there's interest in the concept from various places." If interest can be translated into action, cyber-workshops could be established in various cities around the world. However, Mary-Jo is wary of the idea being picked up by big companies as a cheap solution to staffing challenges. "Our youngsters aren't necessarily very interested in the size of an organisation. They want a way of earning a living doing something they like, especially the ones from low-income backgrounds." Cooperation between the Cyberwerkplaats and employers is on the basis of sponsorships. Sponsorship can take the form of financial support, the provision of internship places or the donation of equipment, for example. "Of course, we also get calls from companies that want help finding personnel, but don't expect to pay for it. Unfortunately, we have to disappoint them. We want to build partnerships where we are able to deliver added value. We want to help employers move towards the recruitment of tomorrow's cyber-specialists by adopting an innovative approach.

The Cyberwerkplaats is already a hit. And this is only just the start!" Are you interested in partnering with the Cyberwerkplaats? Or maybe you're one of tomorrow's cyber-specialists, keen to develop your talents in this exciting new setting? Whatever your interest, check out the Cyberwerkplaats website or drop a line to info@cyberwerkplaats.nl.

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