Tides are changing in the Gulf Coast as a recent increase in support from the Homeland Security Department (DHS) and the National Security Agency (NSA) further solidifies the future of the flourishing cybersecurity industry in Pensacola, Florida. With a strong cyber workforce graduating from the University of West Florida (UWF) and ample funding, the Pensacola area is in the perfect position to grow its economy with cybersecurity. Through strategic partnerships, community investment and government interest, the area is developing into the nation’s new hotbed for cyber innovation and becoming a target for government contractors looking forward in a tough federal acquisition environment.
Those in the Washington, D.C., area will have an opportunity to engage with leaders of the cyber activities in Florida on March 13 when the Washington Cyber Roundtable (WCR) hosts a roundtable discussion focused on the growing cyber opportunities in Pensacola fueled by DHS and the military. The event will feature Brad Nix, the former acting director of the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) at DHS and Chris Middleton, the director of strategic innovation and military liaison at UWF.
“The cyber activities in Pensacola are unmatched anywhere else in the country,” said George Meyers, managing partner of the Meyers Group and chairman of the WCR. “You have this rare trifecta of industry, academia and government eagerly working together which creates an environment where cyber companies and professionals can thrive. That’s why WCR is bringing the conversations in Pensacola to Washington. Too often businesses in and around the Beltway only focus on what’s in their own backyard. It’s evident funding for cyber efforts is emerging on the gulf coast through a variety of sustainable channels and the time has come for Washington government contractors to look south and embrace Pensacola.”
DHS is growing its partnership with UWF because of the university’s commitment to making the region the new “Cyber Coast” with the creation of the Center for Cybersecurity, multidisciplinary cybersecurity programs and research projects and facilities. These efforts led to the UWF’s recognition last year as the National Center of Academic Excellence Regional Resource Center for the Southeast Region by joint sponsorship between DHS and the NSA.
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In this role the university serves as a leader for advancing cyber education in all colleges and universities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Puerto Rico. UWF will also work to develop the cyber workforce in the region and ensure as the field evolves so will the skills of those connected to the school.
“It’s clear UWF’s designation as the National Center of Academic Excellence Regional Resource Center for the Southeast Region has only increased DHS’ investment in the university and its students,” said Shelby Mounts, member of the WCR’s advisory board. “Every time I visit Pensacola it becomes even more evident that DHS leadership is looking at the region as part of the agency’s long-term strategy for advancing cybersecurity practices. As the workforce continues to grow so will the opportunities with the government.”
The university’s status also fast tracks cyber graduates from UWF into government careers by enabling UWF to participate in government sponsorship programs such as the CyberCorps Scholarship for Service, which rewards students with a government clearance and internship in exchange for their service after they graduate.
Last week NSA demonstrated its esteem for UWF’s cyber program when the NSA’s National Cryptologic School and UWF unveiled a partnership to offer accelerated cybersecurity degrees to those in active military. Through the agreement, active military members who complete the Joint Cyber Analysis Course (JCAS) will earn undergraduate credit hours that count towards a degree from UWF. The purpose of the six-month course is to fast track a student from having few computer skills to becoming skilled at cyber analytics. The JCAS is conducted at the Center for Information Warfare Training at Corry Station, which is located in Pensacola. The NSA partners with only five academic institutions (including UWF) to enable accelerated degrees to service members. Augusta University is the only other college or university in the southeast region that is part of this prestigious partnership.
“The government knows finding the right cyber experts to fulfill contract requirements can be the greatest obstacle for businesses and can even result in a firm losing money to fulfill the terms of the contract,” said Antonella O’Brien, executive director of the Small Business Development Consortium. “Having a presence in an area like Pensacola, where the cyber workforce is established, growing and has the support of DHS and the NSA can alleviate that hurdle and even accelerate a company’s success. It also serves a secondary strategic purpose since for highly sought after skills like cyber analytics it can be common for contracts to follow the workforce.”
While other cities in the southeast are gaining significant attention from the contractors for government cyber investments designed to revive communities, few are in the same league as Pensacola. Although Augusta, Georgia, was designated as the new home to the Army’s Cyber Center of Excellence in 2014, the area lags behind Pensacola regarding a local cyber workforce and opportunities for those who relocate.
According to Forbes’ 2017 List of Best Places for Business and Careers, Pensacola ranked 72 overall and 97th in job growth. Augusta ranked 139 overall and 116 in job growth. Huntsville, Alabama, another highly popular southeast city for government contractors, even lagged behind Pensacola coming in 117 overall and 107th in job growth.
While economic hardships endured post-government investments are proving challenging for other cities in the southeast to overcome, funding for UWF’s cyber efforts are diverse and expected to increase. This is largely due to the imminent availability of funds designated to assist the Gulf Coast with recovering from economic damages following the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill. The funding will come in various rounds: first the legislature and non-profit partners will allocate $300 million and then another $1.2 billion will be paid in installments through 2033.
In November 2017 during the round of pre-applications, UWF applied for $27.5 million to pay for the UWF Innovation Network, which seeks to bolster workforce training and development in the region by expanding the university’s downtown locations. A portion of the university’s requested funds would be used to build a new 70,000 square-foot, multi-story facility in the downtown tech park. This facility would house two new centers: The Cybersecurity Innovation Center and the Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory. The Advanced Manufacturing Laboratory would feature a range of 3-D technologies and offer laser cutters and various automation machines. UWF plans to have the Cybersecurity Innovation Center act as a central location for the UWF Center for Cyber Security, which would include the Florida Cyber Range. The center would also act as a central location for regional colleges and universities to access resources through the UWF’s role as the National Center of Academic Excellence Regional Resource Center for the Southeast Region.
Pensacola is poised to take the lead in the southeast with cyber innovation. It will not be long before these partnerships, economic recovery efforts and investments blossom into more cyber opportunities critical to the nation’s security. By becoming aware of the activities in the region before it matures contractors can be in a position to contribute and benefit from the growth.
Barbara George, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Washington Cyber Roundtable. George is an experienced operational academic and subject matter expert with a background in national security, cybersecurity and communications, and strategic planning. She is a retired military officer and a certified reality therapist.