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In Search of Cyber Skills

Michigan’s colleges well-positioned to fill the digital talent gap

By James Mitchell

The solution to a universal problem — a cybersecurity talent shortage that leaves more than a gap in employment numbers — could very well be made in Michigan.

“Cybersecurity is an international challenge,” said Michigan Economic Development Corp. CEO Steve Arwood. “Gov. Snyder wants to make sure residents and businesses are protected, and is determined to be forward-thinking in our approach to growing, attracting and retaining talent.”

The need for cybersecurity is nothing less than a revolution, Arwood said, and its impact on the global economy cannot be overstated.

“It is now an element of concern for every business, regardless of the industry,” Arwood said. “Cybersecurity has forever modified the conversation regarding the future of automotive, robotics and aerospace.”

The economic infrastructure of Michigan, Arwood said, well positions the state to be at the forefront of that revolution. Among other initiatives to address the talent need is the MEDC’s Cyber Mobility program, which focuses on mobility and connectivity challenges.

“The Cyber Mobility program is coordinating with colleges and universities to redefine cyber curriculum,” Arwood said. “We’re marrying our mechanical engineering programs with computer science engineering programs to create the next generation of talent.”

Securing the Future

Educators throughout the state have taken steps to meet the projected demand. Oakland University this fall will launch a master’s degree program, a continuation of the school’s existing cybersecurity courses. Likewise, Eastern Michigan University has been at the forefront of cyber skills training and Wayne State University is home to one of two Michigan Cyber Range hubs.

“With almost every activity there’s a need for information security specialists,” said Mohamad Qatu, dean of EMU’s College of Technology. “It’s all about security and privacy of data.”

Qatu recalled a conference he attended last year that stressed the need to focus on cybersecurity careers at the K-12 level, and said that EMU has been among the pioneers of cyber curriculum.

“We were the first university in Michigan to introduce it as a major,” Qatu said. “Students understand how important it is. Kids today don’t want their data to be compromised.”

The university’s program was, in fact, among the first to pass a National Security Administration review and was recognized by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for academic excellence.

“This particular program attracts a good number of transfer students, and we partner with community colleges. Students can come to EMU and finish a bachelor’s degree, and employment upon graduation is close to 100 percent,” he said.

In-sourcing as Strategy

Cyber knowledge is, employment experts say, as good as it gets for prospects in today’s workforce. Even companies that aren’t hiring designated specialists are in-sourcing staff through internal risk management programs.

“They won’t struggle to find work,” said Bob Zhang, director of IT for Strategic Staffing Solutions, regarding the need for cyber skills. “It’s a hot item right now. Consulting firms are being brought in to train staff. In-house training is very popular, and that’s how we’re seeing the demand filled.”

Zhang said that training on cybersecurity standards will not only continue, but also — more than almost any other field — it will require frequent updates. Unlike previous workforce development efforts for basic computer or program-specific skills, such as Java, cybersecurity’s impact covers all industries and occupations.

Whether in-house or in-state, Zhang said that Michigan holds the resources necessary to develop a competitive workforce, with first-rate universities and a rebounding industry base uniquely suited for the forefront of digital security.

“From a supply standpoint, Michigan will be a hub of technology graduates and resources,” Zhang said. “We just need to make sure they’re funded and focused on those resources.”