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Unmet demand and high pay are drawing students into cybersecurity programs at BYU and Utah Valley University.

SALT LAKE CITY — Cybersecurity expert Robert Kendall has a simple but chilling analogy for how vulnerable we all are to being taken advantage of by would-be digital criminals.

"We all see the news reports of gangs of criminals coming into a neighborhood and just sweeping down the streets, checking every car. When they find open doors, and they do because we tend to leave our cars open when they're parked in the driveways in front of our houses, they clean out whatever they can grab," Kendall said.

"That's exactly what can happen — and does happen — in digital crimes, except in most cases, because we're all human, they'll find most of our cars unlocked."

Those virtual "cars," of course, are things like doing digital business on unprotected home Wi-Fi networks, failing to use robust passwords for accessing sensitive websites like banks and merchants, and falling for phishing scams by clicking on a malicious attachment to a suspicious email.

Working to counter this growing threat — one that's generating billions annually in illicit gains — are two popular and growing local academic programs that are training a new generation of cybersecurity professionals.

Robert Jorgensen helped Utah Valley University launch its Cybersecurity Career Pathways program in 2013 and now serves as the program's director. UVU offers multiple tiers of cybersecurity training, from a two-year associate degree to a master's degree, and is the only state school offering a graduate degree in the field.

Jorgensen said the program was popular from the start and is attracting a growing number of students.

"I think there are a number of factors driving interest — high-profile corporate breaches at places like Target, Sony and Home Depot … (and) questions about Russian hackers and what role they played in last year's election," he said, "but maybe most significantly, the sheer number of jobs available in the field."

Last month, Forbes reported staggering shortages in cybersecurity jobs, with projections indicating a global shortage of 2 million by 2019 and current annual shortages in the U.S. of 40,000.

Even the relatively small state of Utah is short more than 2,300 cybersecurity experts, according to data site Cyberseek. And cybersecurity jobs typically pay even better than already high-paying tech/IT jobs, averaging about $6,500 a year more than non-security positions.

For Kendall, who came through UVU's cybersecurity program, training for employment in an expanding job market was definitely part of the motivation, and it worked out exactly according to plan, he said.

"I had a very positive experience at UVU, and the training is very relevant to what happens in the field," Kendall said. "I was hired immediately after graduating."

Kendall's ability to share details about his employment was limited due to security clearance concerns, but he works for a cybersecurity contractor that "supports the missile defense agency."

BYU has the longest-running cybersecurity program in the state, with instruction dating back to 2004.

Dale Rowe, an associate professor of information technology at the university's Cybersecurity Research Lab, said interest in the program has grown exponentially in recent years.

"When I started here at BYU (in 2010), we had one or two students in our IT department who were specifically interested in security," he said. "Now it's probably about two-thirds of our students."

Rowe agreed with his UVU colleague that high-profile cyberattacks are certainly contributing to interest, and he concurred that many students at BYU, like UVU, are tuning in to market realities.

"Students coming out of our program and taking cybersecurity positions are earning on average about $16,000 more than their IT counterparts," he said. "I believe it's become the highest average starting salary among undergraduates."

Rowe also discounted rumors that BYU has become a training ground for future government snoopers, a tale that's oft been told since the National Security Agency opened its $1.5 billion Utah Data Center near Bluffdale in 2014.

"Since I've been at BYU, I think I've placed two interns with the NSA," he said. "That's out of over 250 students."

Utah's two cybersecurity programs are excelling and bringing out the best in each other in areas outside the classroom as well.

Just last month, BYU edged out UVU at the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition at Regis University in Denver. The contest was one of 10 regional competitions pitting cybersecurity student teams against each other in a test of their skills in a "real-world" setting.

BYU competed in San Antonio last week against other regional champions vying for the national cybersecurity crown. Winners were announced Saturday, with the BYU team earning third place behind the University of Tulsa and the 2017 National Cyber Defense Competition champion University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Rowe said the competition is a great opportunity for students to test their skills in a realistic setting.

"Our team is always very excited to participate in these events," he said. "It's a chance to put what they've learned into practice in a high-stress situation that's not unlike what they may encounter in their profession."