SecureSet Colorado Springs Campus Director Abe Thompson and Cybersecurity Career Program Manager Megan Missick check on progress with the current CCP cohort.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series examining partnerships between the military and the civilian business sector.

Abe Thompson recalls an Army medic who entered the Cybersecurity Career Program at SecureSet as “the go-to guy in his office for computer-type stuff.”

That was the medic’s talent, but it wasn’t his profession, said Thompson, campus director at SecureSet’s Colorado Springs campus.

“He retired from the Army and went through the program with us,” he said, “and he walked out of here at six figures.”

Another active duty soldier came to SecureSet via the CCP for his initial cybersecurity certifications, and is now an associate at a major firm in Denver. And CCP student Cpl. Nathaniel Button hasn’t even graduated yet, but he’s already accepted a job as a network administrator focusing on vulnerability analysis.

“It’s amazing — and that’s all because of this program,” Button said.

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A partnership between SecureSet and Fort Carson, CCP launched in 2017, offering active duty soldiers a fast track to civilian cybersecurity careers as they transition out of the military.

Aiming to bridge the gap between military experience and civilian cybersecurity requirements, CCP’s first cohort saw 17 soldiers participating in SecureSet’s five-month CORE Technical program.

Less than two years later, CCP has accumulated graduate success stories, said Thompson, himself a Navy veteran.

“These stories are not a guarantee or proof text, but they’re interesting,” he said. “I think the big change has been the success stories that we now can look back to. We bring those alumni in because they’re happy to come back and stand up in front of these groups, whether it’s the soldiers or the civilians among them. It does help when they hear from their near peers that have been there, done that. So it’s not just me that’s touting some party line — they get to hear the reality from folks who are just a few steps ahead of them. That’s always been the way in the military.”

Cybersecurity Career Program students in the classroom at SecureSet’s Colorado Springs campus.

Through CCP, soldiers in the last 180 days of their active service prepare for civilian careers as security engineers, information assurance analysts, penetration testers or security consultants.

They continue to receive full military pay and benefits for the duration of the program, and can use G.I. Bill funds.

“It takes a lot of stress off of the service members as part of their transition, because they know that they’ve chosen the pathway that they’re interested in and they’ll have livable wages on the other end,” said Sherry Jenkins, transition services manager at Fort Carson’s Soldier for Life-Transition Assistance Program.

It’s a far cry from the transition experience even a decade ago. Unemployment rates for transitioning service members were “sky high,” Jenkins said, before President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Opportunity to Work Act in 2011, allowing service members to participate in Career Skills Programs (also known as SkillBridge Programs).

“What all the programs are about is bridging the gap between the skills that a transitioning service member has and what the in-demand industry is looking for — and certainly cybersecurity is one of those in-demand industries,” she said.

Career Skills Programs range from skilled trades like welding to highly technical careers like cybersecurity and server and cloud administration. And while the CCP is new enough that it hasn’t yet had many cohorts, Jenkins said, it is successful.

“We monitor all of these programs, and across the Army we’re at about a 93 percent employment placement rate,” she said, “and we follow those at 30, 60, 90 and 100 days post program.”

The Army looks at programs like CCP as an investment, Jenkins said.

“We’ve watched the unemployment compensation — that all of the service departments have paid to transitioning service members — drop dramatically since implementation of these programs, and [since] improvements to the transition assistance programs as well,” she said.

“That’s money that can go back to readiness. So that’s one avenue.

“Also we’re fostering … a military service member for life culture. When a service member leaves their branch of service, if they’re well taken care of during their transition, they’re going to talk good about their service. And that’s going to help with recruitment in the future.”

Fourteen weeks into the immersive program, Button has nothing but praise.

“I come from a totally non-technical background; I was infantry for five years,” he said. “And this course has taken me from — I wouldn’t say illiterate in the world with computers, I mean I know how to work my way around a Windows computer — but it’s taken me from there to fully able to get a job in cybersecurity. … That’s what I wanted out of the program. I didn’t have any certifications or anything to put on my resumé that would make it easy to transition to civilian life, and this has changed that.”

Button said it’s been years since he was in an educational environment.

“I was a little overwhelmed, especially because the subject matter is new to me,” he said. “But … the way that the course is structured, it definitely helped me out. … I got really into the swing of things and it’s been pretty smooth sailing since then.”

Thompson said a lot of people come in scared.

“This is a transition. This is a culture change,” he said. “These guys are walking from one entirely different culture into a foreign culture for most of them. For some of us who served over 20 years, this is a completely foreign world out here: There’s a different lexicon; there’s a different expectation; there’s a different way of operation.

“I’m delighted that I get to be in the mix to help them through that — to help them through the fear, to reinforce their confidence and then build into them some very important skills.”

CCP Manager Megan Missick has “transformed the program in terms of the caliber of soldier coming through,” Thompson said, by identifying who’s most likely to thrive.

“I vet as I go [interviewing prospective CCP students], because it doesn’t help anybody if we get someone in the program that we know is not going to make it — whether it’s a soft-skill issue or aptitude for the technical information,” Missick said.

She’s on Fort Carson a couple of days a week, and works all SecureSet’s information sessions and resource fairs.

“That way they have an opportunity to come ask me questions face to face, and if they’re not from Fort Carson they typically call me or email me,” Missick said. “So I kind of work from everywhere. When they have a million questions, because they’ve never done something on their own before, then we can sit down and go over it.”

Missick completed a similar program — the Hiring Our Heroes Corporate Fellowship — while she was a transitioning service member at Fort Carson.

“I’m jealous of the soldiers — there was nothing like this program when I got out,” Thompson said. “[Megan] is a result of one, and she was human resources for the Army … so she has an affinity with the soldiers, she has an affinity with management of personnel, and she’s a leader. … She has been a great comfort, confidante and mentor for a lot of the soldiers.

“What’s been most powerful,” he added, “is to see the soldiers that have this benefit are so excited about it, they go back and they tell their friends.”

SecureSet does not place CCP students in jobs, Thompson emphasized, and is not focused on test prep.

“We are entirely focused on hands-on, practical learning,” he said. “We want to give them the ability to complement any certification that they might go pursue with a theory-based and practical-based education. That completes an employability triangle, as we talk about it. That’s where you have success.”

In the end, soldiers’ employability relies on much more than their resumé, Thompson said.

“We fully recognize that 80 percent of getting that first job is your soft skills, your ability to make eye contact and articulate yourself,” he said. “One of the unfortunate realities in the job market is that the HR screeners will look at a non-traditional resumé — or the computer will look at a nontraditional resumé, if we’re being truthful — and cast some of these people aside because they don’t fit a certain mold that’s been programmed in.”

That’s why it’s important for soldiers to gain the skills to add to their military experience, he said.

“We’re talking about America’s heroes — we’re talking about people that have fought alongside those that have made the ultimate sacrifice, and so we know they do amazing things,” he said.

“So let’s help shape them and help them get to that next great platform.

“The job of getting a job,” Thompson added, “is 100 percent the soldiers’. But what they will get is 110 percent of our efforts and our contacts and our network, and they get to be in front of a multitude of employers. …

“Mission accomplished is not that they walk in the door. Mission accomplished is not necessarily they graduate — although that’s fantastic, and we celebrate. But our hearts’ desire, and what we celebrate as mission complete, is when they get a job offer.

“We don’t do it for them but, boy, if they’re on board and responsive, they’ll get every bit of our hearts and investment in helping them do that.”