As threats via cyberspace continue to grow worldwide, the demand for cybersecurity jobs follows suit, and the cybersecurity program at Metropolitan Community College-Blue River in Independence also continues to bloom.

The program now has a new, specially designed space – a 2,000-square-foot lab opened this spring – and can boast some impressive national recognition.

MCC-Blue River is one of just 70 community colleges out of more than 1,200 to be named a National Center of Academic Excellence in cyber defense, as selected by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency for its curriculum and institutional practices.

In the past three years, cybersecurity program director Brian Hurley estimates, student enrollment has nearly doubled to about 200, as Blue River's program is unique to the metro area and western Missouri, and Kansas City has been a growing technology hub.

For students, the designation means confidence in a program that's nationally recognized, Hurley said. For employers who hire a student from the program, “They know they're going to rise to the challenge.”

“Word's starting to get out: If they come out of here, they're ready,” said Hurley, who also serves as a national mentor evaluating other schools trying to start such programs. “Every (employer) has got technology. You name it, we've placed them there.”

The lab is in the Public Safety Building at the Blue River campus – made possible by $100,000 in gifts over the past four years from the Truman Heartland Community Foundation, which his supported MCC projects for years. It has numerous computers, a 24-person conference table in the middle that also can be a giant white board and its own private network and server.

“With the dedicated space and dedicated network, allows us to turn on 'dangerous' stuff now that we don't have to use the school network,” Hurley said, referring to realistic cyber-attack scenarios or safeguard checks. On white board even has a server number written with the words “Hack this for extra credit.”

“We're able to be a lot more hands-on,” student Tara Allen says of the new lab space. “It's a more practical degree path.”

Hurley worked for Blue Ridge Bank before joining MCC first as a network engineer eight years ago, and Allen said the real-world experience he and other faculty bring to the table is helpful.

“It brings more authenticity; I appreciated that as a student,” she said.

MCC students in the cybersecurity program can finish in two years or less with an associate's degree in applied science in secure systems administration and engineering, and along the way they would earn three industry certificates.

Hurley said sometimes a student will leave for a job after earning one of the certificates.

“In technology, you don't have four years to sit around and wait,” Hurley said. “Those that want it are employed before they finish.”

Some students in the program are traditional college age, Hurley and Allen said, but many are people who have been stay-at-home parents, are returning to the workforce or are looking for a career change. One thing that does surprise some students is learning that savvy computer skills aren't as necessary as good people skills often learned at blue-collar service jobs.

“You could have the fanciest equipment,” Hurley said, “but a lot of cyber is working with people.

“I take a lot of pride in this, having grown up here.”

Furthermore, the cybersecurity industry won't be shrinking anytime soon.

“The industry is screaming for women and minorities,” Hurley said. “It's not going anywhere.”