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California Cyber News

Voucher Program Prepares Students for a Career Where Certifications are Crucial

High school senior Christian Pinkston was nervous before an exam he took recently, but not in the way you might expect. Rather than studying for history or chemistry, he was preparing to take a CompTIA IT Fundamentals certification exam.

“It was a lot of focused studying in class, in groups, and long nights staying up so when the day came it was going to pay off,” Pinkston said. “The test itself was very nerve-wracking and in some ways scary, but the feeling you get when you pass is amazing.”

As anyone who has worked in IT knows, certifications are key to a successful career. The earlier someone can obtain them, the better equipped they’ll be to meet the demands of the cybersecurity workforce. In fact, they are a natural next step from cyber competitions — turning that experience into real-world skills that can be applied in a variety of fields.

However, certifications are expensive and the process to earn them is complicated. A new partnership between the California Cyberhub and the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) is already streamlining the process and opening up certifications to middle and high students across California.

The vouchers allow students to obtain CompTIA IT Fundamentals certification by watching free video training on ITProTV and completing exercises on virtual machines through Practice Labs. The entire program is free to schools and other organizations that apply exam proctors through the California Cyberhub, thanks to funding from the California Community Colleges Information Communication Technologies and Digital Media sector.

The IT Fundamentals voucher program is the brainchild of Steve Linthicum, Deputy Sector Navigator for Information Communication Technologies and Digital Media in the Orange County Region. Linthicum has a strong relationship with CompTIA and negotiated a partnership with CompTIA, ITProTV, and Practice Labs while attending the CompTIA Academy Partner Program Summit last summer.

So far, about a quarter of the 1,000 vouchers have been utilized by everyone from middle school students to cyber coaches and instructors. More than 80 percent of all participants passed the CompTIA certification exam, and more than 75 percent passed it on their first attempt.

Those numbers also hold true when looking specifically at middle and high school students, with 151 passes out of 183 attempts and 135 passes on the first try.

Pinkston said he found Practice Labs much easier to use than other training methods he previously tried. Earning the CompTIA certification gave him the boost of confidence he needed to end the school year.

“All your fear goes away and, for me personally, I felt accomplished with my senior year,” he said. “It has brought me a new outlook on the IT/security industry and an even higher outlook at what I can achieve.”

In fact, Pinkston came close to dropping out of high school before he found technology. His teacher, California Cyberhub Community Manager Donna Woods, witnessed the transformation as he discovered his future in IT.

“He had given up, but we found where his strengths were and worked with those abilities,” Woods said. “He literally jumped out of his seat when he found out that he passed the exam.”

Establishing the importance of certifications early on is essential for getting students to buy into the idea that they are important for success in IT and cybersecurity. In fact, certifications can lead to a high-paying job that does not require a college degree — especially when combined with apprenticeships and other professional experience.

“We have introduced students to industry-recognized certifications and most of them now have their first certification, a recognized key to success for IT/cybersecurity careers,” Linthicum said. “Entry-level positions do not require an associate or bachelor’s degree. Students entering this career path can obtain additional higher level certifications through courses offered by California's community colleges.”

The IT Fundamentals exam is the only one that can be proctored outside of a testing center. The ITProTV training videos and Practice Labs exercises can be accessed anywhere, which makes it ideal for teachers to utilize in their classrooms as a supplement to cyber competition activities.

Linthicum has already made plans to continue the voucher program into the next school year and make sure it aligns with the latest version of the certification exam, which will be released in the fall.

In addition, Linthicum is serving as the instructor for the free CompTIA's train-the-trainer course for the IT Fundamentals certification exam, scheduled in July and August. The course is online and designed for teachers or others who want to prepare students for the exam. Participants can register for the course at bit.ly/2KQrsw7.

To learn more or apply for a voucher, visit the California Cyberhub’s IT Fundamental Voucher Program page.

Copyright 2016 SynED