Sacramento turns COVID layoffs into a cyber training opportunity


COVID-19 has caused devastating unemployment. Moody’s estimates it could take until 2024 to recover the 22 million jobs lost. A highly motivated workforce is now stuck at home with no work.  

The city of Sacramento saw this as an opportunity.

There, same as so many other locations across the country, cybersecurity jobs remain unfilled. In fact, the growth in work-from-home increased the cyberthreats facing businesses and exacerbated the ongoing struggle to find a trained workforce to meet demand for cyber skills.  

The idea: Sacramento began offering free, comprehensive cybersecurity training for workers displaced due to COVID-19. It’s first cohort of trainees is about to enter end-of-class internships.  

“It’s helping build an infrastructure that will benefit us for years,” said Kriztina Palone, the new workforce development manager at the city’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development. 

In April, Sacramento received $89.6 million in federal funds through the The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It almost didn’t happen, said Palone. CARES allots funds to cities of at least 500,000 people; Sacramento weighs in at 508,000. But with the funds, Sacramento was able to allot $10 million total to 30 workforce programs. Four covered technology, one covering information security. 

“I was new to the conversation around cybersecurity,” said Palone. “I was blown away by at the numbers and demand. The need for cybersecurity covers so many industries, big and small companies.” 

The city approached Carmen Marsh, who heads the Sacramento-area cybersecurity consultancy Inteligenca to run the program, dubbed the SacCARES Cybersecurity Career Accelerator.  

The city was hoping to leverage Marsh’s experience running the no cost “100 Women in 100 Days” cybersecurity training program, which Marsh had founded based on her experience in the industry.” 

“I started as the the only women on the team of of males. That part of the industry hasn’t changed,” she said. “I kept going to conferences and having the same conversation, ‘There aren’t enough women. There aren’t enough people in the workforce.’ So I did something about it.”  

100 Women in 100 Days has been successful. The current version is funded by Craig Newmark Philanthropies and local groups; Marsh is setting up international franchises as far as New Zealand and Japan. It’s a strong template for the COVID training.  

While the courses culminate in a certification, Marsh emphasizes that its not just a certification course. There is interview preparation, discussion of workplace culture and adding workplace value, guest speakers and former students rejoining the class Slack to work as mentors. Marsh runs career fairs for her students as well.  

“I come from a hiring manager’s perspective. We know people need more,” said Marsh.  

The SacCARES program is currently training students of a wide variety of backgrounds, everyone from bar owners to Uber drivers to medical billers, aged 17-62. And if the 100 Women in 100 Days program is any evidence, people willing to put in the work have a good chance of succeeding.  

Naomi Rosario, a former hairstylist, was one of the first students in 100 Woman in 100 Days cohort and now works as a cyber analyst.  

“I working 50 hours a week and still wanted to do more, ” she said.  

Rosario, who now also leads discussion sessions in new classes, said changing careers to cybersecurity takes dedication, but isn’t something that is out of reach with the right training, even for someone without a background.  

Hema Pillay, a current student of 100 Women in 100 Days, is a former software engineer returning to the workforce after taking a decade off for childcare.  

“It’s far exceeded my expectations,” she said. “If I had done this on my own – that was my plan – I don’t think I would remember all of the things I do from the instructor’s stories.”  

Hema said the cohort system and mentorship opportunities are real strengths of the program, creating a built-in support system.  

“I would recommend the program for anyone who is on the fence,” she said. “I wish nationally there was funding for this.” 

Sacramento’s Palone believes this model for COVID training would work nationwide. But it’s not without challenges.  

Without tthe CARES act, she said, the city would never be able to expand workforce development to its current size. And running a training program ending in a certification isn’t cheap. The certifications themselves aren’t cheap.  

“Other cities should look into this,” she said. “But it takes commitment. It takes leadership and resources. You need to recognize how much you can accomplish, but how many barriers you need to remove to get there.” 

Joe Uchill

Joe is a senior reporter at SC Weekly, focused on policy issues. He previously covered cybersecurity for Axios, The Hill and the Christian Science Monitor’s short-lived Passcode website.

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