Amid a steady drumbeat of headlines about major data breaches, Minnesota campuses are rushing to train professionals who will guard against cyberattacks in coming years.

A slew of Minnesota colleges and universities have launched cybersecurity programs in recent years, making it one of the fastest growing higher education fields locally. More than a dozen institutions in the Minnesota State system have started programs in the past three years alone. One of them, St. Paul-based Metropolitan State University, last year opened the state’s first “cyber range,” where students and employees of local companies get hands-on practice parrying simulated cyber intrusions.

A string of private campuses have launched programs as well, and at the University of Minnesota, which has offered a cybersecurity master’s degree since 2012, a new 24-week boot camp is slated for this summer.

Institutions have enlisted some of the state’s largest employers for input. One challenge: Companies want these professionals now. But they’re also looking to entrust their data systems to workers with experience.

“There is a huge disconnect in the marketplace right now,” said Wilson Garland, executive director of the Minnesota State IT Center of Excellence. “The need is so intense, and yet it’s a fairly recent field with graduates coming out without a lot of experience.”

At Minneapolis-based Dunwoody College of Technology, leaders heard that concern from an advisory group featuring IT pros from Fortune 500 companies such as Thrivent Financial and Wells Fargo. Rob Bentz, Dunwoody’s dean of computer technology, says one member made an analogy to basketball players who can run practice drills and study strategy — but ultimately need to face off against real adversaries on the court.

Dunwoody, a private nonprofit campus that has been offering computer technology programs since the 1990s, set out to address this Catch 22 by designing an evening bachelor’s program. Slated to start this fall, it will allow graduates of Dunwoody’s two-year computer networking program and others to work in the field during the day.

At Metropolitan State and other Minnesota State campuses, programs try to include hands-on training, such as a statewide cyber defense competition in which contestants confront “ethical hackers” from local companies. Contestants have landed internships and jobs at some of those businesses.

The system created the new MN Cyber Institute in 2017 to serve as a statewide resource for emerging programs. The proliferation of such programs is driven by growing demand for workers. According to the online data aggregator CyberSeek, Minnesota employers have more than 5,600 openings in the field. The research company Gartner tracked 1,180 such openings at UnitedHealth, 785 at U.S. Bank and 500 at Target last year.

The private St. Mary’s University started an online master’s in cybersecurity in August; it also offers a bachelor’s in computer science with a cybersecurity track on its Winona campus.

Dunwoody is pursuing coveted designation by the National Security Agency, which already recognizes programs at St. Cloud State University, Lake Superior College, Metropolitan State and Capella University. Officials at Dunwoody said employers made it clear they want in-depth training rather than short-lived boot camps and training courses.

“A lot of training that was done in a hurry in previous years is causing the problems we have now,” Bentz said. “Security was an afterthought.”