Officials gathered at Gulf Power’s office to discuss the local cybersecurity industry.
The next step in growing the Pensacola region into a hub for cybersecurity came on Tuesday as officials from education, government, military and private sectors convened at Gulf Power Company’s corporate downtown office.
Organized by FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, the region’s primary economic agency, the meeting allowed local professionals with ties to cybersecurity to appraise Pensacola’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities in the industry.
Information gleaned from the session will contribute to an official community strategic plan for cyber growth in the community, which FloridaWest expects to release in about two months.
“Today’s process was to bring all of the stakeholders together across the spectrum and have this dialogue to help make sure that we are all seeing the same things, that we all have the same understanding of the community,” said Scott Luth, CEO of FloridaWest. “Are we all willing to commit to move the strategy forward? That’s really what we’re looking for today in this group in getting this feedback from these stakeholders.”
Among the region’s strengths in cybersecurity, officials noted the federal government’s substantial role with the presence of the Department of Homeland Security, military installations and a concentration of defense contractors.
Navy Federal Credit Union’s expansion, as well as the growth of the area’s health care systems, stood out. The region’s education — the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of West Florida, Pensacola State College’s cybersecurity baccalaureate degree and George Stone Technical Center’s certification programs — was also recognized.
But there are still ways the region could improve. Escambia County Commissioner Doug Underhill, who attended the meeting, said more could be done to encourage economically disadvantaged students to pursue careers in cybersecurity. He said the region has recently taken steps to address that, but more work needs to be done.
“We have some structural issues in our school system in that we’re not getting to our most vulnerable kids fast enough,” Underhill said.
He suggested that more programs and activities take place near poorer neighborhoods to reach youth who would do well in the cyber industry but might not know a lot about the profession.
“Lots of people who create the jobs, who have five to 10 empty positions right now that they would love to fill, they would love to see our kids applying to our jobs,” he said.
Cybersecurity professionals participate in a meeting on Tuesday, March 28, 2017, at Gulf Power Company’s downtown office in Pensacola. FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance organized the meeting to gather input on the industry. (Photo: Joseph Baucumfirstname.lastname@example.org)
Multiple officials from the military, as well as defense contractors, said the wait to get the proper governmental security clearance deters qualified job candidates from working in the region.
It takes anywhere from a year to 18 months to process a clearance request, said Sean O’Brien, program executive for CSRA’s Information Technology Support Services contract with the Naval Education and Training Command.
“I can find somebody with the right certifications, right skill set, right experience, but I can’t offer them a job until we start their clearance,” he said. “It could be a year or more before that clearance comes in. What normally happens is that individual moves on to other opportunities that they find usually out of the area.”
To prevent qualified candidates from moving away for other jobs, O’Brien proposed establishing partnerships between the government, education and private sectors. He said candidates could intern while in school in unclassified or civilian work while waiting on clearance approval and then transition to a defense-contractor job after it arrives.
“They can finish their high school diploma or their two-year degree, and when they come out, I’ve got a clearance ready for them, and they can roll in and become part of the workforce,” he said.
Building the region’s cybersecurity sector carries significant economic benefits. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, jobs in information technology nationally pay $37 per hour in earnings (wages plus benefits). In the Pensacola metro area, the pay is about $30 per hour, and most cybersecurity positions fall within the IT designation.
Zach Jenkins, director of the UWF’s Haas Center for Business Research & Economic Development, said the industry is also less at risk of losing jobs to automation. The sector spawns other jobs, which add tax revenue to the local economy, and with computers and technology increasing, online threats will continue to escalate — making the industry even more important.
“With cybersecurity, we’re seeing nothing but growth,” Jenkins said.
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