HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — An increasingly dangerous online world could be a job-creator for West Virginia.

Gordon Gee

“We ought to be the cybersecurity center of the country,” West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said last week while appearing in Huntington during a discussion about economic development.

“We have the FBI in Fairmont. We have crime cyber facilities. We are just far enough away from Washington to be safe, but we are still within their driving distance.”

One trick is, others are noticing this potential too. A recent Reuters headline described “Flush times for hackers in booming cyber security job market.”

The non-profit Center for Cyber Safety and Education last month predicted a global shortage of 1.8 million skilled security workers in 2022, the Reuters article noted. The group, which credentials security professionals, said that a third of hiring managers plan to boost their security teams by at least 15 percent.

A day after that article appeared, a separate Business Insider article made note not just of the jobs possibilities but of the startup companies that are springing up: “Cybersecurity is a $81.7 billion market — and startups are raking in the dough.”

Several of West Virginia’s higher education institutions, including WVU, have been laying the groundwork to meet the needs of the burgeoning cybersecurity industry.

Students may learn a range of skills — from gathering digital evidence after a crime has been committed online to providing better defense against malevolent online probes.

The Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering is at the forefront of WVU’s efforts to train students.

The University of Charleston offers both bachelors (junior and senior level courses, with the expectation that students will have completed prior work at community colleges like Blue Ridge) and masters degree programs in cybersecurity.

In West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College runs the Center for Applied Cyber Security, where students may pursue certificate or associates degrees.

Marshall University

Jerome Gilbert

Growth in such areas is likely to continue astronomically, said Jerome Gilbert, president of Marshall University, which is training students through its  Digital Forensics and Information Assurance degree program.

“Charleston, Morgantown, Huntington are certainly areas where that could develop,” Gilbert said.

“I think it’s important to have that training associated with the young people that you’re going to need to feed that industry. Of course you can hire people from the outside, but there’s always a need for young, bright minds to come into organizations that would be in the IT area, the security area.”

The reason, Gilbert said, is increasing online connectivity. His own son is employed in the cybersecurity industry, and Gilbert has seen the potential.

“I think there’s great potential for cybersecurity to expand in this region. I think we’re right on the front end of cybersecurity. I think it’s going to take off as one of the bigger industries in this country,” Gilbert said.

Marshall’s Digital Forensics and Information Assurance degree program has been in its current form, where students work toward a bachelor’s of science degree, for the past three years. Before that, it was an area of emphasis, usually with about eight students. Now there are 84.

Graduates wind up with jobs in organizations such as the CIA or FBI, with defense contractors, hospitals or a variety of other institutions with the need to protect their information.

“There’s all kinds of opportunity out there,” said Bill Gardner, an assistant professor in Marshall’s program. “Cybersecurity has a zero unemployment rate at this point. They can’t find enough people to fill the jobs.

“When people graduate from our program they get hired pretty quickly and they also make a higher starting salary than a lot of other career paths out there.”

With low costs and a trained workforce, West Virginia could be an attractive place for companies in cybersecurity to do business, said John Sammons, an associate professor in the program, which is in Marshall’s School of Forensic & Criminal Justice Sciences.

“I think this could be an attractive place for companies to at least consider relocating part or all of their business. We have this tremendous program at Marshall that could feed trained, quality employees into the business,” Sammons said.

“That company could operate, for example, a security operations center, which is manned 24/7, 365 and it actually monitors client traffic network from incoming attack. But that company could relocate here from Philadelphia, Chicago or New York and be able to get quality folks for less money than they would elsewhere and also with greatly reduced overhead to the business cost.”