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St. Louis Opens Cyber Center of Excellence

The Midwest Cyber Center of Excellence will serve private business that want to beef up their cybersecurity systems, help train workers in the field and serve as a research institution to combat hackers.

(TNS) -- Metro-east leaders took a big step toward addressing the soaring need for cyber-security workers around the St. Louis region by announcing Tuesday morning the launch of the Midwest Cyber Center of Excellence.

The center will serve the needs of undergraduate college students, industry professionals and government and private sector employers, whose demand for cyber-security workers continues to surge annually in lockstep with the evolving nature and complexity of hacker threats from around the globe.

The center will also engage in research, help stimulate entrepreneurial activity and provide public education about cyber-security and how to defend against hacking and other online threats.

The center’s co-founders are Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, Southwestern Illinois College and Webster University, as well as partners Aegis Strategies Foundation, St. Clair County and nearby Scott Air Force Base.

A report analyzing the specific workforce needs of the region’s cybersecurity industry found that “while other centers of excellence exist on both coasts, there is nothing comparable in the Midwest, and the conditions here are not only favorable to such a endeavor, they demand it,” said Mike Riley, the leadership council president.

Military, financial, healthcare and law enforcement agencies are expecting to see “unprecedented needs” in the cyber-security labor market, Riley said.

“This poses challenges in filling existing positions and also threatens to derail the growth of the cyber-security industry, which is a potentially significant creator of jobs,” Riley said. “With the creation of the new Midwest Cyber Security Center of Excellence, we plan to eliminate this problem altogether.”

Aegis will donate office space and financial resources to the center, to be located at Aegis’ offices a few hundred yards west of Scott’s Shiloh entranceway. The center is currently seeking an executive director.

SWIC will provide classroom space, access to computer labs and training space, in addition to grant-writing, marketing and career services. The plan also calls for the center to partner up with Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which is one of only two universities in the state to integrate National Security Agency certification into its degree programs.

Jason Carter, the president of Aegis, a defense-oriented technology consulting firm, noted how in the five years since his firm’s creation, it has expanded its client list to a long list of federal and regional customers, while its workforce has grown to 60 people.

It was only fitting that Aegis, in view of the growing demand for cyber-security in the region and his firm’s growing cyber-security expertise, partner with leadership council SWIC, and Webster University to start the center.

“The collaboration between these groups to quickly act and to organize is impressive,” Carter said. “And we’re excited to house the center while contributing our time and financial resources to rapidly transform the initial vision into a reality that meets regional workforce needs.”

Georgia Costello, SWIC’s president, greeted the center’s launch with a level of excitement that was almost palpable.

“If you’re not excited about something like this, then you better need to take your temperature,” Costello said.

Costello noted SWIC’s long history of involvement with both Scott and local military personnel, of whom 1,900 attend the school’s three campuses.

“Greater St. Louis has a significant regional IT (information technology) force,” she said. “Boeing, MasterCard and other corporations, educational institutions and governmental agencies are heavily involved in cyber-security. IT and cyber-security education and the key aspects of the regional workforce development, and we’re excited to be working with partners in the Center for Excellence to build that workforce.”

Tuesday’s announcement occurred a day before representatives of the the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency will be on hand at Katy Cavins Community Center, in O’Fallon, to meet with community leaders and residents to discuss the results of an environmental impact statement concerning the suitability of a 182-acre tract of St. Clair County land next to Scott. The meeting is set to run from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday.

The county tract is one of four sites in the St. Louis region being considered by NGA to replace its existing site in south St. Louis, near the Anheuser-Busch brewery.

The presence of the Cyber Center for Excellence nearby the proposed site is “certainly not going to hurt” the St. Clair County’s chances for luring the NGA facility to Scott, said Terry Beach, the county economic development director. “It’s going to be an asset.”

The NGA, which pursues a myriad of intelligence-gathering missions, is rapidly transitioning into one of the nation’s top cyber-security weapons. NGA staff work already closely with the NSA to track down hackers and other adversaries around the globe with the help of social media tools, generating maps and other data to disclose their whereabouts.

NGA plans to announce the winner of NGA’s new home by March, with construction on the $1.6 billion facility set to begin in early 2017. The new NGA campus will bring with it 3,100 jobs and is expected to open by 2021.

The center’s top priority will be workforce development, especially in connection with the growing “cyber footprint” at Scott, which in December will start serving as the home for two newly created Air Force cyber-security squadrons, according to Riley.

Webster University, which has classrooms at 60 locations nationwide, including 34 military bases, will, through its Cyber Research Institute, donate expertise and services in the form in the form of advanced training in its master’s degree program in cyber-security. Center trainees will have access to virtual laboratories housed at Webster’s St. Louis campus.

Beach, the county economic director, said the center will be a boon to local businesses and agencies who need to protect valuable data and our resources from outside intruders, while promoting the growth of new businesses in Southwestern Illinois and the St. Louis region.

Beach quoted a recently published interview in which Adm. Michael Rodgers, the National Security Agency director, said a major cyber attack on critical infrastructure in the United States, to include such things as the nation’s power grid, traffic control and water supplies, was inevitable.

“He calls it our potential ‘Digital Pearl Harbor,’” Beach said. “Clearly there are a whole host of reasons it makes sense to not only create this center of excellence, but also to house it here,” he said. “And its presence here can make a real difference as we continue to make the case that our location next to Scott is the best location for the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency West campus.”

Finally, Beach said, he hoped the center will serve as a magnet for “additional IT and cyber-related investment in this area.”

For young people, cyber-security remains a career field brightened by the prospect of numerous job openings and relatively high pay far into the future.

Thomas Johnson, Webster University’s associate vice-president and chief of strategic initiatives, said a recent Labor Department study found the cyber-security is “one of the hot areas of growth. The salaries these people are getting are incredible.”

It is not uncommon for recent college graduates with bachelor’s degrees in cyber-security fields to start earning up to $125,000 in annual wages “because their skill sets are so important, so necessary.”

©2015 the Belleville News-Democrat (Belleville, Ill.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.