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A rural prosperity initiative: Cyber security is a growth industry for all of Virginia

Virginia has 17,000 openings for jobs in cyber security and state officials, business leaders and entrepreneurs say they are committed to educating and hiring a workforce to fill that employment gap.

Three members on a panel titled, “Cyber Security: A growth industry for all of Virginia,” carried that message this week while speaking at the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity, held at the Tides Inn in Irvington on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

The summit was presented by the Virginia Rural Center and is the signature annual conference that brings together the Commonwealth’s administration, elected officials, community leaders, educators, businesses and more to discuss the challenges in and solutions for growing rural Virginia’s economy.

Panelist Shannon Blevins, associate vice chancellor for Economic Development and Engagement, UVA-Wise, appeared via video and spoke of the successes in her region of transitioning from an economy battered by losses in the energy sector to job creation in the high-tech industry.

Cyber security is playing a key role in that transition, evidenced by the Oxbow Center in St. Paul. The Oxbow Center is becoming a cyber security accelerator, taking advantage of the region’s “superhighway” of fiber deployment and a robust electrical grid that’s a legacy of the mining and manufacturing industries, Blevins said.

“We’re excited about what cyber security offers this region,” Blevins said. “It’s a progression that started 25 years ago. There is no reason why we can’t have a robust cyber security industry in rural Virginia.”

A second panelist, Heather Engel, executive vice president at Suffolk-based cyber security company Sera-Brynn, said her growing firm doesn’t need programmers. Her background isn’t programming after all; she has a college degree in public relations and an MBA.

“I need people who understand risk management, who can talk to clients,” she said. “I can teach you how to do a vulnerability scan or a pen test, but I can’t teach you how to have a conversation at the c-suite level.”

Engel asked the audience members to carry back to their communities the message that her firm and others in the cyber security industry need workers with a wide variety of skill sets.

Panelist Bob Stolle, senior vice president of operations for the state-launched non-profit Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, said his organization’s focus is on early-state development and creation of new high-tech, high-growth jobs such as cyber security.

Cyber security is a leading job creation industry for the commonwealth, Stolle said. With the presence of the federal government and national defense contractors, Virginia is very fertile ground for the cyber security industry. Over the past three years, 40 new cyber security companies have been incubated across the state, he said.

“These companies don’t need to be in northern Virginia,” Stolle said. “The technology created by these companies quite often can be done anywhere. There are advantages for companies to be close to the Pentagon or intelligence agencies, but the work done by these companies is often virtual as long as they have the workforce.”

Stolle said community colleges across Virginia can incorporate cyber security into their educational offerings, which can in turn boost local economies. “Once you begin to train these folks and they have job opportunities, then companies begin to locate there as well,” he said.

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