HCC-MRC Program Trains Disabled Individuals for Cybersecurity Jobs

HOLYOKE — Not long ago, Aidan Burke was working in a local supermarket, making pizza for minimum wage. It was not a job he believed held much promise for him. But life has changed a lot since then for the 29-year-old.

In February, Burke started a free, intensive cybersecurity training program for people with disabilities offered by Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC). Ten months later, he is now poised to begin a career as a cybersecurity analyst.

“I liked working at Big Y, and I could pay my bills, but there was nothing I could really do with that,” he said. “Now I’m looking at positions that have salaries and benefits. That’s a big change for me. It’s fantastic. This class has just opened so many doors. It’s life-altering, or at least has the potential to be.”

Already, Burke has started an internship with NetWerks Strategic Services, an Agawam-based technology company. In recent weeks, he has interviewed for full-time positions with benefits at the Massachusetts Educational Collaborative and the Department of Youth Services. He is also a candidate for a summer internship with MassMutual.

“The opportunities are just so much bigger and better than what I had before,” he said. “I was kind of floundering a bit in terms of direction in my life, and now I have an opportunity to move up in the world.”

Burke and his 14 classmates completed the Cisco Academy Cybersecurity Training program on Dec. 10. They graduated Dec. 18, having passed their exams as Cisco certified network associates and Cisco certified cyber-operations associates.

“Mass Rehab has been very happy with the success of the students academically,” said Kermit Dunkelberg, HCC’s assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development. “Ultimately, the goal is to get them placed in jobs, and we’re very optimistic because these students are very well-prepared.”

The HCC-MRC cybersecurity training program was the first of its kind in the state. Based on the success of the pilot, MRC initiated a second progam in September in collaboration with Roxbury Community College and has begun recruiting for a second class at HCC that will begin in February.

“Together we are re-envisioning employment and people’s lives,” MRC Commissioner Toni Wolf said. “In the wake of COVID-19, our perspective on what is possible for remote work is expanding on a daily basis, particularly how resilient and adaptive people with disabilities are and the transformative thinking on the future of work. These Cisco certifications are nationally recognized and highly sought-after workplace credentials that will give these students the needed leverage to enter a high-paying industry.”

Cybersecurity analysts are network watchdogs, monitoring network activity, tracking alerts, guarding against cyberattacks, and looking out for abnormal network behavior. They fix security problems, restore compromised systems, pinpoint conflicts, and collect evidence of criminal activity in the event of an intentional breach or legal proceeding.

“Cybercrime is up 600% due to the pandemic,” HCC President Christina Royal said. “There are a lot of bad actors looking to exploit network vulnerabilities, with costs estimated at $6 trillion in 2021. Cybersecurity is an important area that companies are needing and investing in.”