IT’S a question every organisation with any degree of information technology needs to ask itself as a matter of urgency: How well equipped are we to deal with the rising threat of cyber crime?

The alarming answer for many is an acceptance of inadequacy, with recent research showing that just 35 per cent of business leaders have confidence in their staff being able to combat cyber attacks.

A new body, based in the North-East, is leading the way in tackling that statistic by providing protection for organisations through the expert training of employees.

The Tees Valley Cyber College, based within the main terminal building at Durham Tees Valley Airport, opened in March and is the first in the UK to provide specialist training in the increasingly complex sphere of cyber security.

Make no mistake, cyber criminals are out there – from organised gangs to opportunist hackers – so the Cyber College aims to upskill businesses to minimise the risk of falling prey to these sophisticated parasites of the digital age.

A year ago, a major cyber attack on the NHS using ransomware acted as a wake-up call to the nation when computer screens across the health service announced data was unavailable unless the user paid a fee. Telephones stopped working and patients were advised not to go A&E departments as our reliance on digital communication exposed the country to extortion.

Having identified the skills gaps in both the public and private sectors, Andrew Bowen,

who runs Bowen Consulting, saw the need to set up regional cyber colleges to strengthen the national campaign to thwart computer crime.

The Tees Valley Cyber College, the first in the UK, is about to be followed by partner colleges in Manchester and London, thanks to a ground-breaking collaboration with the Housing Association Charitable Trust (HACT), which has begun to fully appreciate the transformational nature of technology.

By leveraging the Apprenticeship Levy, as well as its own funding contacts, Cyber College can offer digital apprenticeships to existing staff and new employees so small businesses are better equipped to cope with the threats and grasp the opportunities.

“Business use of cyberspace has grown rapidly in recent years but workforce skills to handle security risks have struggled to keep up,” says Mr Bowen. “The regional Cyber Colleges represent a landmark achievement for the state of cyber security in the UK, delivering cyber skills through work-based learning that better

protects your business, now and in the future.”

Tees Valley Cyber College features an on-site academy for Cisco, the worldwide leader in IT and networking, and offers a Level 3 foundation year in IT Infrastructure and Cyber Essentials, leading to a Level 4 Cyber Security Intrusion Analyst qualification.

With Mr Bowen acting as chief executive of Cyber College, Tracy McNicholas – who previously worked as apprenticeship co-ordinator in digital technology and creative industries for Stockton Riverside College – has

been appointed as director and brings with her a wealth of experience.

High-calibre trainers and assessors have been employed and Mrs McNicholas has no doubt that the importance of Cyber College will grow, both as an employer in its own right and as a supporter of other organisations. “The potential for Cyber College is enormous because every organisation, big or small, has to face up to the fact that cyber crime is a real and growing threat,” she says. “It is no longer acceptable to bury your head in the sand and hope it never happens. The threat is here now and urgent steps have to be taken to guard against it.”

As well as providing expert training towards apprenticeships, Cyber College also offers ‘vulnerability tests’ to assess how well equipped organisations are to fight off a cyber attack.

With the Government now requiring Cyber Essentials certification for all suppliers bidding for contracts involving the handling of certain sensitive and personal information, insurance companies are increasingly likely to question whether companies are fulfilling all data obligations.

“We have to get away from the idea that the obligations and the threats only apply to specialist IT organisations,” says Mrs McNicholas. “We are now living in an age when this is relevant to any organisation with an IT infrastructure as part of its operation.”

David Grant, managing director at Durham Tees Valley Airport, believes introducing enterprises such as Cyber College to the site is an important element of the masterplan to ensure the airport has a sustainable future.

The challenges facing the airport are well documented and the objective is to develop a business cluster at the airport with Cyber College joining the likes of Cobham Aviation Services; Paragon Rapid Technologies; Thales UK Ltd, flight inspection services; the Serco International Fire Training Centre, and Shutter Media on site.

“The region needs the airport for its own prosperity but we have to identify new revenue streams for the site to make it more viable,”says Mr Grant. “A few years ago, everyone was looking at how to deal with the growth of social media and now it’s common for organisations to employ digital media specialists. The next big skills gap is in cyber security because a lot of IT managers, who qualified a decade or so ago, haven’t been trained in cyber security or data analysis.”

It’s no coincidence, of course, that an airport should be the location for a Cyber College, with the aviation industry so dependent on digital communication.

The early signs are that the confidence in the potential growth of Cyber College is well-founded with highly-respected organisations already looking to the Tees Valley for its cyber training.

Discussions are ongoing with the North East Regional Special Operations Unit (NERSOU),which was established in 2013 as a partnership between the three police forces of Cleveland,Northumbria and Durham to tackle serious and organised crime. Middlesbrough College is another early public sector collaborator and it is hoped more partnerships will be forged with other training providers.

In the private sector, Middlesbrough-based Virtual Armour’s link-up with Cyber College is viewed as a particularly significant indication of confidence in what the organisation can offer.Virtual Armour employee Kurt Fletcher, 19, of Middlesbrough, is engaged on a Level 4 Network Engineering Apprenticeship at Cyber College. “It’s so important to have something like this on our doorstep because cyber security is a massive issue and it’s growing all the time,” says Kurt. “Every company and organisation needs to think about the risks and make sure it gets the right training. I’m really excited to be part of it at the beginning.”

It really is just the start for the pioneering Tees Valley Cyber College as the wake-up call over computer security continues to send alarm bells across the world…and more organisations face up to the question: How well equipped are we to deal with the rising threat of cyber crime?