UK cyber skills gap risk to businesses and national security

 Hand increasing the protection level by turning a knob.
Hand increasing the protection level by turning a knob.

The UK is facing a problem not being discussed enough: the cyber skills gap. This refers to the critical shortage of experienced and equipped professionals able to tackle the evolving challenges of cybersecurity. There is a growing disparity between the demand for cyber staff and the availability within the talent pool who would be able to handle the complexities of the role. This gap is more concerning than it first appears, it has an impact on the stability and security of businesses across a range of industries, as well as nations as a whole.

The trickle-down effect

Recent UK statistics paint a stark picture, with reports indicating that half (50%) of the nation's businesses are facing a basic cyber security skills gap and one-third (33%) have an advanced cyber security gap This shortage isn't just a statistical concern; it's a tangible problem that poses significant risks. For businesses, it leads to increased vulnerability to cyber threats, prompting data breaches, financial losses, and reputational damage.

Industries reliant on secure IT infrastructure, such as healthcare and finance, face heightened risks. Take, for instance, the disruption caused by a ransomware attack on a major UK healthcare provider, compromising patient data and disrupting vital services. An incident like this underscores the correlation between skill shortages and vulnerabilities in essential infrastructure. Moreover, national security itself is at stake, as critical infrastructure becomes susceptible to cyberattacks due to insufficient skilled personnel.

Where does the issue start?

Before diving into potential solutions, it’s important to address the root causes of the shortage. There are several factors contributing to the widening gap. Starting with the educational system, the UK lacks specialized programs tailored to the dynamic cybersecurity landscape - this is an area which must be strengthened with the right backing from both the government and company perspective.

This rapidly changing landscape often means that professionals struggle to keep pace with these advancements, meaning that change needs to be implemented within businesses to keep their cybersecurity staff trained in the correct areas. Recruiting the right staff is often a challenge in itself with there being such strong competition for qualified candidates. This creates a recruitment deadlock, while high attrition rates within the industry impede efforts to maintain a skilled workforce.

Businesses must step up in 2024

There is no one fix to this, addressing the cyber skills gap requires a concise, multifaceted approach. Businesses must actively focus on shrinking the skills gap and one way of doing this is through the upskilling and reskilling of existing cybersecurity staff. Creating a continuous learning culture will support this goal, staff are then encouraged to constantly learn about new and emerging cybersecurity trends and technologies.

Businesses should also be rolling out tailored training programs to support the upskilling of employees, which cater to the knowledge gap. These programs can cover a wide range of cybersecurity aspects, from basic training for all employees in how to spot phishing campaigns to specialized training for IT and security teams on the latest AI-powered security technology. To go even further, bringing in external help in the way of specialized cybersecurity educational institutions can offer deeper expertise that may not have been considered at the business level. By adopting these strategies, they can foster a workforce that is not only skilled in addressing current cybersecurity challenges but also adaptable and prepared to tackle future threats. Investing in employee development not only closes the skills gap but also strengthens the overall security posture of the organization.

Collaboration is key

It is not just businesses that will be negatively impacted by the widening cyber skills gap, it will also impact national governments. They increasingly rely on a smaller cybersecurity staff to protect themselves and their critical infrastructure from attackers in the current geopolitical landscape. They can play a role in decreasing the cyber skills gap by creating more stringent policy frameworks that encourage cyber education while offering funding initiatives and grants to support skill development programs. There is also the possibility of incentivizing cybersecurity firms with financial benefits if they offer training to both mid-market and enterprise businesses.

An example of this is the ‘Cyber Explorers’ program which provides schools with free resources designed to help pupils learn skills for a career in cyber in sectors that include medical research, security, social media and artificial intelligence. These initiatives help create a thirst for knowledge for cybersecurity and introduce young people into an industry they may not have previously thought about. Not only this, but it raises the basic level of cybersecurity across the board, meaning that small issues or worries are less likely to crop up, freeing cybersecurity staff time to focus on deeper issues.

In 2024, Businesses and governments alike must address the cyber skills gap and the issues that arise from it. It can directly lead to missed vulnerabilities, unplugged gaps and easy access points for bad actors, which could cause data breaches, financial losses and critical infrastructure compromises. Addressing the root causes, including deficiencies in educational systems and recruitment challenges, is crucial. However, the solution lies in a collaborative effort between businesses and government. Upskilling existing staff, fostering continuous learning cultures, and partnering with external experts are steps that can fortify businesses against evolving threats. Simultaneously, government initiatives, such as educational programs and funding, can cultivate a passion for cybersecurity among the younger generation and alleviate the skills shortage.

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