Ask an MSP ExpertQ: I own a mid-sized MSP and I’m having trouble finding talented technicians. That has me worried about the industry as a whole. Is there any hope for getting more kids interested in the profession?

MSP’s are fighting a chronic labor shortage. By 2022, the shortfall in technicians will be approaching a staggering 2 million, but don’t despair. The profession is a rewarding one, and plenty of work means plenty of opportunities. We need to make today’s technologically savvy students aware of the incredible career that owning or working for an MSP can bring them.

To facilitate this awareness, one MSP owner in Texas is taking matters into his own hands, trying to ignite interest in the industry among students at an early age. If every MSP followed his lead, the 2 million number would probably be much smaller by the next generation.

SmarterMSP caught up with William Whitney III, owner of MSP Whitney Solutions and professor of cybersecurity at Collin College, which serves students in suburban Dallas. Our first question for him was, why is there such a shortfall in technicians?

Whitney told us that part of this shortage is due to the macro-economy as a whole. With unemployment at record lows, every industry is suffering from a severe shortage of employees.

Whitney informs us that, “Many people tend not to realize you can’t just get a degree in cybersecurity and make six figures a year.” That sets up unrealistic expectations that lead to quick discouragement and burn-out. So Whitney sets out to build realistic expectations from the start.

Start a “cyber camp”

One of the ways he does that is by teaming up with Collin College to host a summer “cyber camp” for 7th to 12th graders. Your MSP could do the same by teaming up with a local high school or tech school to put on an incredible hands-on cyber experience for kids.

Whitney’s camp is set up in a big conference room with 4 to 5 students at a table. Many kids come into cyber camp with “Hollywood” movie scenes in their head of quick bucks, hacking into sophisticated systems, and quickly becoming a “cyber ninja.” From day one, Whitney builds reality into the camp so that the kids can see what is really involved in providing managed services and security.

The first day of the camp covers basic electronics. The room is stocked with hardware, laptops, computers, and devices that kids can choose from. Then, they rip the innards out and put it all back together again. To complete the assignment, the device must be able to function again after it is reassembled. All the while, the kids are learning about CPUs, memory, and motherboards. Once that part is over, Whitney starts with the networking side.

“That is when you see light bulbs are going off in their heads—when they realize how everything is interconnected,” notes Whitney.

Each table is set up as a “corporation” with a stack of network equipment. With a server at the central table, students grab their own switch and firewall and cable it to the server.

“They are literally providing power to their systems from my table, and I’m teaching them each level and all the phases before we finally get to cybersecurity,” details Whitney.

Once the students understand what they are trying to protect, the data and the hardware, that’s when the cybersecurity work begins at camp. Whitney makes it fun by letting students simulate breaches and attempted breaches of banks, casinos, and other businesses.

After that underpinning, students learn about scanning websites and securing physical devices like IoT and webcams. Every table has a smart power strip that plugs into the network. Students figure out the defaults and can invade the other team’s table networks. This allows them to shut off the other team’s computers and systems. One can imagine the teenagers’ laughter when a neighboring table’s screens suddenly go dark. 

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“What draws a lot of these kids in is hacking. Once they see how things work and physically put them together, they think it is really cool. They are more interested in the technology side of how it works, than what they see on TV,” Whitney says. What draws a lot of these kids in is hacking.

The gender gap

The ranks of MSP owners and technicians are mostly male-dominated, but Whitney sees a clear lane for young girls eyeing the field.

Teams used to be divided into boys and girls, just to keep things simple. According to Whitney, “The girls seem to catch on a lot faster. They would get done and just be sitting there waiting.”

Now, the teams are blended and bonded. One mom wrote Whitney a letter after camp describing how her teenage son and daughter often bickered and fought, but they had bonded over computers and coding at camp and found a common interest.

If you have the patience to deal with teenagers and coordinate the specifics, a cyber camp is a great way to spread the MSP gospel.

Start internships

Other MSPs looking to cultivate young talent should scope the local educational landscape.

“MSPs should reach out to colleges, tech schools, and even high schools,” advises Whitney. “Local colleges are looking for industry to give internships and co-ops to students, while industries are looking for fresh eyes,” he adds. Often, there isn’t great coordination between institutions and the industry, so the MSP shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to a school.

Interns gain valuable experience, while the MSP can get a much-needed staffing boost without killing their budget. Providing internships are a direct way to put talent into the staffing pipeline of tomorrow’s MSPs.

“There are two types of interns: one that really likes technology and wants to learn it and they take direction and run with it. The other type wants it, but doesn’t want to do the hard work to learn and understand it,” details Whitney. Working as part of an MSP is not an easy profession.

As Whitney describes, “We do more of a hands-on approach, instead of teaching just the theory. The students get hands-on experience about how everything integrates together.”

Whitney said he has seen many students from Collin College get jobs with big-name companies because of their impressive cybersecurity resume.

Don’t forget the soft skills

Finally, Whitney reminds MSPs to make sure they don’t forget to emphasize the soft skills with your camp participants and interns.

“One of the things I push in my classes is team-based learning and figuring things out together. It prepares them for the real world.”

“Soft skills” are simply being able to interact with clients and co-workers effectively and not forget the human element of running an MSP. Once the students have the cybersecurity knowledge in place and the soft skills to go with it, they excel.

Ready Set Managed

Photo: SpeedKingz / Shutterstock

Kevin Williams

Posted by Kevin Williams

Kevin Williams is a journalist based in Ohio. Williams has written for a variety of publications including the Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and others. He first wrote about the online world in its nascent stages for the now defunct “Online Access” Magazine in the mid-90s.

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Here in Fairfax County, VA the public school system have Academy courses that high school students can select as their electives. Some of the Academy electives are IT related with certifications. Comptia/Cisco/A+/Network+ are some of the courses. The benefit here is the high schooler’s are graduating with certifications ready for the mid to entry level workforce!

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  2. Kevin Williams

    Thank you for sharing that, Benny. The problem seems to be,in many cases, is that there isn’t enough coordination between MSPs and schools. The schools serve as the pipeline to tomorrow’s workforce and the earlier you can get into that pipeline and start making students aware of the opportunities out there, the more fruit the efforts will bear. Sounds like Fairfax County’s Academy courses are a great approach!

    Reply

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