Target Corp. is donating $250,000 to the University of Minnesota to help bolster the pipeline of graduates with expertise in cybersecurity.

The gift — part of a three-year collaboration with the U's College of Science and Engineering — is being used for scholarships, fellowships and grants, as well as course curriculum and opportunities to connect with professionals in the field.

Rich Agostino, chief information security officer at Target, said the gift from his department isn't specifically about Target trying to recruit more cybersecurity experts for itself right now, noting that it has been able to fill most of its job openings.

"Of course I'll be happy if we get a bunch of energetic, smart students from the U to work here at Target, but really the bigger mission is inspiring the next generation of cybersecurity leaders," he said. "When you see some of the data out there, there's literally hundreds of thousands of open jobs right now in cybersecurity. That's expected to grow to millions in the next few years."

Target was one of the first major companies to have a massive data breach in November 2013, during which the personal and financial information of tens of millions of its customers was compromised. After that, Target built a state-of-the-art "Cyber Fusion Center" in its Minneapolis headquarters and beefed up its cybersecurity teams. The staff now numbers in the "hundreds" and has more than doubled in size over the last four years, Agostino said.

Unlike many other companies who outsource much of the work, about 90% of Target's cybersecurity efforts are now done in house.

"We've been able to do that by hiring industry experts over the last few years who work like magnets," said Agostino, noting they help attract other people who want to come and learn from them. "They're here for a few years, become industry experts and then go off and do great things. We view that as a win for us, and we view it as a win for the industry."

Cybersecurity professionals, he said, see their work as a "team sport" in which they are constantly talking to others in the industry and sharing cyberthreat intelligence on a daily basis with other companies.

Since Target's data breach, a wide array of other companies in industries ranging from retail to medical and banking have become victims of cyberattacks. The large and growing number of threats has spurred many companies to hustle to beef up their security teams, only to find a shortage of workers in the field.

As a result, cybersecurity programs have become one of the fastest-growing fields in higher education. Many Minnesota colleges and universities have been launching new cybersecurity programs in recent years. For example, St. Paul's Metropolitan State University now has a "cyber range" where students and local employees can practice how to handle simulated cyberattacks.

The U has a security technologies degree, a professional program and recently added a cybersecurity boot camp where students can gain certification. At the undergraduate level, cybersecurity is one of the areas of possible focus for students within its growing computer science degree, said Mats Heimdahl, head of the Computer Science and Engineering Department.

"We're bursting at the seams here in computer science," he said, noting that the school has been working to add more computer labs and other resources to keep up.

Target's gift will help bring more attention to the cybersecurity field as a career opportunity for the U's students who also are attracted to hot areas such as artificial intelligence and data science, he said.

"I don't think our students might understand how exciting and interesting it can be," he said.

Mostafa Kaveh, dean of the College of Science and Engineering, added that it's a field that has a lot of job security, too, given how hungry both industry and government are to hire people with these skills.

"If they want to make sure they always have a job, that's an area to go to," he said.

Three-quarters of the college's science and engineering graduates end up staying in Minnesota, Kaveh said.

"That's really incredible," he said, noting that it's a testament to the large number of major companies in the Twin Cities. "If you look around the Midwest, you won't see that" in other places.

Last year, 3M, Boston Scientific, Medtronic and Target were among the top employers of the U's science and engineering graduates. The college is in the midst of a plan to boost its undergraduate enrollment by 25% over five years to keep up with student interest and industry demand for graduates with its skills.

As part of its gift, Target is awarding seven $5,000 scholarships for undergraduates interested in cybersecurity, and it will provide funding for student groups to attend conferences, workshops and "hackathons."

It also is already involved in a yearlong upper-level course in which students work on a major project with Target leaders to try to solve an industry problem.

Target's Agostino added that he hopes students will realize cybersecurity can encompass a lot more than they might think.

"When people think about an information-security job, they picture the person sitting in a fusion center waiting for the alarm bell to go off, but there's so much more to security than that," he said. "We have engineers developing cutting edge software. We have intelligence analysts who are tracking what the criminals are doing on a daily basis. We have auditors and ethical hackers testing our defenses. So there is a varying array of jobs."

Kavita Kumar • 612-673-4113