Shreveport – As the US faces a shortage of technology workers, north Louisiana could provide a blueprint for developing talent. State officials have devoted millions to expanding the techindustry and recruiting the next generation of professionals to sustain it.
Historically dominated by industries including manufacturing, oil and gas and agriculture, North Louisiana seems like an unlikely place to develop the cyber industry. But six years ago, state and local officials invested more than $100 million in Bossier City to create the 3,000 acre National Cyber Research Park (NCRP), a facility modeled after the Cummings Research Park in Alabama and the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. The NCRP has steadily become a hub for cyber research, entrepreneurship, and workforce development programs due to the work of its anchor, the Cyber Innovation Center (CIC).
“Essentially, we are building a cyber economic development engine here in North Louisiana. A cyber corridor is growing along I-20, from Shreveport to Monroe,” says CIC Vice President G.B. Cazes. “We’re seeing a workforce groundswell, so we’re putting training and education programs in place to meet the expanding needs – current and future – in the cyber job market.”
Several companies have moved into the modern, high-tech, 135,000 sq. ft. CIC headquarters, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Computer Science Corporation, and smaller information technology companies like Venyu, Riverside Research Institute, WaLa!, and Ingalls Information Security.
The cyber cluster is expanding elsewhere across the I-20 corridor. In Shreveport, La., digital media companies have set up shop at CoHabitat, a co-working space which appeals to young technology entrepreneurs. Oscar® award-winning Moonbot Studios, a digital media company founded by writer and animator William Joyce, moved into Shreveport’s InterTech Science Park. Technology start-ups have migrated to Louisiana Tech University’s new research park, Enterprise Campus in Ruston, La. to leverage the R&D coming out of this small, but nationally ranked research institution. CenturyLink, the third largest telecommunications company in the nation, is expanding its Monroe, La. headquarters, adding a 250,000 square foot Technology Center of Excellence to accommodate technology research and development labs.
“The reason the cyber cluster is flourishing across North Louisiana is our emphasis on workforce development and recruitment,” said Scott Martinez, president of the North Louisiana Economic Partnership (NLEP), a regional economic development group. “It’s so important to have a workforce with the right STEM skills in order to attract technology companies. Here in North Louisiana, state, regional and local leaders are working hard to recruit knowledge workers and to promote STEM education locally.”
The CIC has helped develop programs with elementary, secondary and post-secondary partner institutions meant to attract more students to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and cyber fields. Louisiana Tech University and Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC), have been designated Centers of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance by the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency. In addition, Louisiana Tech established the nation’s first undergraduate degree program in cyber engineering in 2012.
Cazes says the CIC has also developed a network of education partners that includes K-12 school districts, community colleges, and universities. Schools in the area can take advantage of the Cyber Discovery Model, a professional development program developed by the CIC and Louisiana Tech University for high school teachers that culminates with a one-week, residential camp for both the teachers and their students. Cazes says that the camp covers the history of cyberspace, ethical and social issues, applications, and the need for and use of security in cyberspace.
“The Cyber Discovery Model empowers teachers to integrate lessons from Cyber Discovery into the classroom and encourages students to explore and enter STEM fields,” he says.
The program has been so successful that it has recently earned a grant from The Department of Homeland Security to expand and has been rolled out as a national model.
“We expect it to reach more than 1.7 million students and 12,000 teachers across 700 high schools and 65 university partners over the next ten years,” says Cazes.
It couldn’t come too soon. Despite the personal ease millennials have with technology, a cyber career isn’t tops on their list, according to a recent survey by Raytheon. When asked what careers they wanted, 40% of millennials surveyed responded “entertainer,” the top category, while just 24% said “cyber security professional,” the third category from the bottom, and behind 11 other fields that included entrepreneur (39%) and social media professional (32%).
“With the growing threat of malware and cyber warfare, it’s going to be imperative to grow talent in the cyber field,” says Cazes.
Indeed, it seems to be working in North Louisiana. At Bossier Parish Community College (BPCC), enrollment in STEM programs has grown by 70%, as new and existing companies in the region look to the college for workers trained in cyber security, nursing, allied health and other fields.
“The biosciences and information technology, particularly cyber security, has really expanded in our region,” says BPCC Chancellor Jim Henderson. “The demand is more than we’re able to fill currently.”
Consequently, BPCC has planned a 62,545 sq. ft. STEM Center that will feature state-of-the-art classrooms and labs. Cyber coursework will be a large component of the new facility.
“The placement rate in this field in our area is, literally, 100%,” says Henderson. “Cyber impacts every sector that has valuable information, from financial services to healthcare. We’ll be training students to work in a growing number of positions that keep those assets secure.”
Louisiana Tech University developed its cyber engineering program in response to a suggestion made by Dr. Kamal T. Jabbour, senior scientist for information assurance at the Air Force Research Laboratory, which has worked closely with the CIC and Louisiana Tech University in developing cyber programs. Jabbour is an expert in information assurance, including defensive information warfare and offensive information warfare technology. About five years ago, he advocated the creation of cyber engineering degree programs that could prepare students in the field in a more thorough manner than was being achieved in academic programs where cyber was an academic concentration, not a major.
“We took Dr. Jabbour’s idea very seriously,” says Louisiana Tech University Cyber Engineering Program Chair and Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Cyber Engineering Travis Atkison. “We started on developing a curriculum that could not only give students the right balance of the technical skills, but also the right liberal arts background to put this type of work in the proper context.”
The new major combines components of electrical engineering and computer science, and exposes students to social science topics such as the future of cyber, the history of information warfare, national security policies, cyber law and ethics.
Student enrollment jumped 300 percent from the first to second year of the program. Several other universities nationwide are considering adding a dedicated cyber engineering major and have contacted Louisiana Tech University for advice, says Atkison.
“We know we’re on the frontier of this body of work,” says Atkison. “In something like traditional electrical engineering, you study the same circuits today that you studied 10 years ago. But in cyber engineering, we know that what’s out there in a decade will be nothing like what we see now. That means we have to create problem solvers – students who will be able to adapt.”