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Metro East leaders unveil cybersecurity training center

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Wayne Pratt|St. Louis Public Radio

A new partnership in the Metro East is designed to train more workers for cybersecurity careers. Organizers are hoping it will boost the area’s chances of landing the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which will be moving from south St. Louis.

The Midwest Cyber Center of Excellence is based just outside Scott Air Force Base. It's goal is to help to train workers in all sectors to better protect an employer's online network.

“I just think it’s a natural fit,” St. Clair County Economic Development Director Terry Beach told St. Louis Public Radio, "to combine the needs of NGA with what academia is offering. And I think it shows that our side of the river, in particular, is taking the lead in this area.”

The center's unveiling comes as economic development, education and business leaders in the Metro East make a push for the intelligence agency, which is expected to select its new location somewhere in the St. Louis region early next year.

The cyber center, combined with the agency, could also provide a key weapon in the ongoing battle against brain drain, said Beach.

“College graduates move on to other areas; San Antonio, Colorado, Washington, D.C., Tampa – where there’s other major military and federal agencies. I think there is an opportunity to keep those graduates here.”

Linking with key high-education institutions is a main element of the new cyber center. Webster University and Southwest Illinois College are among the founding partners. SWIC President Dr. Georgia Costello regards the center as a vital tool to support area employers.

“Boeing, MasterCard and other corporations, educational institutions and governmental agencies are heavily involved in cyber security,” she said.

“IT and cyber security training are key aspects of regional workforce development.”

Southern Illinois University Carbondale is expected to eventually join the partnership by providing resources from its Center for Academic Excellence for Information Assurance and Security Education. It is regarded as one of the top cybersecurity programs in the country.

Webster University is planning to give those enrolled at the Center for Excellence access to its virtual laboratories and other resources.

Dr. Thomas Johnson developed Webster’s cybersecurity program and he also sees the initiative as an opportunity to support businesses throughout Greater St. Louis.

Dr. Thomas Johnson, Webster University
Credit Wayne Pratt|St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Thomas Johnson is an Associate Vice President and Chief of Strategic Initiatives at Webster University.

“There's a growing trend to basically get inside corporations and it’s become very, very dangerous for our country.”

Johnson said the growing need is leading to lucrative careers for cybersecurity graduates.

“The starting salaries depend on the corporation and their particular needs, but it’s not at all uncommon to see $95,000 to $125,000 salaries.” he said.

“This is basically a law of supply and demand. The companies and the government need people skilled in this area and as we are turning people out, they are getting good employment.”

The Midwest Cyber Center of Excellence is searching for an executive director, who will work with a board of directors that initially includes various founding partners. They include the Leadership Council of Southwestern Illinois and The Aegis Strategies Foundation, along with Webster University and Southwest Illinois College.

Wayne is the morning newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.

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