Whatcom Community College to offer in-demand IT degree

By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal

Students can begin applying for Whatcom Community College’s first applied bachelor’s degree.

It’s a degree in a growing field that employers are clamoring for.

Classes for the new bachelor of applied science degree in IT networking will start in fall.

The bachelor’s degree couples with WCC’s existing two-year degrees in computer information systems and cybersecurity.

The degree covers three topics in networking that will also be available as certificates: mobile and wireless, cloud computing and industrial control systems architecture.

The program prepares students to manage computer networks — something that affects most people’s daily lives, even if they don’t realize it.

A computer network is just a group of many computer linked together.

The internet is the biggest example of a computer network, but there smaller networks everywhere.

Industries, like the refineries and utilities, use networks to run equipment. Most offices also have their own computer network.

“To print, to email, all those things that travel across the network that people take for granted,” Corrinne Sande, director of WCC’s computer sciences and information systems program, said, “[it’s] all over a network and someone is managing that.”

It’s rare to find an office or company these days that doesn’t have its own network, Sande said.

And companies are in need of people with the skills to manage them, and keep them safe.

“There is really a need out there in the job market for people who have these skills, and employers have told us about that and we’ve responded to that demand,” Mary Vermillion, WCC spokesperson, said.

WCC is the only place north of Seattle where students can get this type of training.

Students can start applying for the program on Jan. 17.

To start the program, students must already have a two-year degree in some IT field, or have an equivalent amount of work experience in an IT field.

Only 24 students will be accepted into the program. Vermillion recommends that anyone interested should meet with a WCC advisor to learn more about the program and the application process.

A lot of companies require their employees to have some kind of bachelor’s degree.

However, most college programs in the field only offer two-year degrees.

“Up until recently, people in this particular field had no pathway to a four-year degree,” Sande said.

However, “at some point [graduates] discover to advance in their field, they need a bachelor’s degree.”

Since arriving at WCC 17 years ago, Sande has worked to advance the school’s computer programs.

WCC is one of the core members of CyberWatch West, a National Science Foundation center dedicated to improving cybersecurity education.

In 2014, WCC was recognized as center of excellence in information assurance and cyber defense by the National Security Agency.

It was one of the first community colleges in the country to earn that distinction. Graduates from WCC’s CIS program have almost 100 percent employment.

Jamila Kaya is a graduate of WCC – she earned her associates degree in cybersecurity in the summer of 2016.

Now she works as a network security engineer at Puget Sound Energy. It’s a critical job – millions of people depend on PSE for their power.

Kaya said a lot of utilities connect their vital equipment to a network so it can be operated remotely.

Kaya said cybersecurity is getting more and more important all the time.

“In the last 15 years our reliance on technology has grown exponentially,” she said. In the rush to develop newer and better tech products and get them on the market, security was often an afterthought, she said. Now the entire tech industry is playing catch up.

An attack that took down popular websites in October showed the world the need for more network security.

Web-connected devices (including webcams and DVRs) in unsuspecting people’s homes all around the world were infected with malware.

Then, on Oct. 21, all those devices overwhelmed an internet infrastructure company that directs internet users to many popular websites.

Sites including Twitter, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal became inaccessible to users around the country.

People don’t usually think about cybersecurity when they think about their webcams, routers, and any other device that connects to the web that’s not a computer or smartphone.

“Those devices, because they’re on the network, they can be used to attack other devices,” Kaya said.

As more and more devices become “smart” devices and connect to the web, now everything from refrigerators to home heating systems, that network security will become even more important.

Companies are looking to hire people with those advanced skills.

One of those companies is Bellingham’s Emergency Reporting, among the fastest-growing companies in the Northwest.

“We are consuming technical resources in the community at a voracious rate,” Emergency Reporting Executive Director Ed O’Neill said. “We’re hungry for everything the schools can pump out.”

Emergency Reporting produces web-based tools to help firefighters and EMTs.

It’s critical work, and security is paramount, especially since the military uses some of Emergency Reporting’s tools.

The cybersecurity standards for delivering a software product to the military are very, very high.

“You have to have your game together,” O’Neill said.

“To meet those compliance objectives, we need really smart, capable security people.”

Emergency Reporting has been growing by 40 percent every year; it’ll be looking to hire more than 30 people in 2017.

A lot of those are IT or CIS jobs.

“These skills are in high demand,” O’Neill said.

He doesn’t particularly need networking specialists, but he said a four-year degree is an important offering.

“I would certainly prefer people with a deeper level of experience and time under their belts,” he said.

The company has hired many graduates from WCC’s program.

O’Neill said he is very impressed with the employees who come out of the program.

“Whatcom graduates seem to do great things. They do great things for us,” he said.

Not only do they have a high technical skill level, but he has noticed that WCC graduates also tend be good communicators and team players — skills that are important, but not usually taught in IT programs.

“What they’re doing is working,” he said.

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