Wichita could soon emerge as a hub for the ongoing battle against cybercrimes, officials say.
"We could create a place that's attractive for IT companies — maybe not the extent of Seattle or Silicon Valley, but a regional magnet," said Col. Joe Jabara, vice wing commander for the 184th Intelligence Wing of the Kansas Air National Guard at McConnell Air Force Base.
The momentum is being driven by the development of cybersecurity programs at a number of colleges and universities in the Wichita metropolitan area. There's a voracious demand for employees trained in how to protect computer networks.
That, in turn, could bring firms specializing in information technologies to the area because of the availability of a freshly trained workforce, Jabara said.
The gap between available workers and the number needed is projected to be 1.8 million by 2022, an increase of 20 percent over projections made just a year earlier, according to the Center for Cyber Safety and Education.
Local programs are launching
Wichita State University launched an engineering technology bachelor's degree with a concentration in cybersecurity last year and plans to expand the program this fall. A graduate certificate in information assurance and cybersecurity has been offered for more than a year now.
Friends University is adding a cybersecurity degree track this fall for traditional college students to go with a master's program and an undergraduate track for nontraditional students.
Butler Community College offers an associate degree in cybersecurity, and Newman University will launch a new business and strategic intelligence program this fall.
Justin Eichorn, program director for cybersecurity at Friends University, said the worldwide demand for cybersecurity professionals is so high that he's been telling students they can "almost set their own salaries when they graduate."
Students who have graduated recently from Butler Community College have landed jobs paying $45,000 and $50,000 a year, with salaries soaring into the six figures as employees gain experience, said Brett Eisenman, lead instructor of the cybersecurity program at Butler.
Why a hub could happen
Wichita is well-positioned to become a cybersecurity hub for a number of reasons, Jabara said. It's far from the coasts, where competition for cybersecurity specialists is intense.
That means companies would be more likely to hold on to their prized employees.
The terrain is flat, "so it's easy to get bandwidth in and out of here," he said. Ample bandwidth would be a must for IT companies.
Having the 184th Intelligence Wing at McConnell is a strength for Wichita-area colleges, school officials say.
The wing handles network operations for the entire National Guard, detects and assesses cyber-intrusions on Department of Defense computer networks and has a "red team" that tests the strength of security systems by "replicating the adversary," Jabara said.
"I think there's a lot of room for collaboration," said Scott McIntosh, assistant professor of strategic intelligence at Newman University.
Lincoln Schroeder, who has been hired to expand Wichita State's cybersecurity program, said he's working to build partnerships with the 184th Intelligence Wing.
"We want to be able to provide a really good ready-to-work workforce," Schroeder said.
With aviation companies nearby, officials say, local graduates won't have to go far to find work. But the demand in general is rising exponentially, local educators say, and isn't limited to a few industries.
"There are many small to medium-size businesses that either don’t want or can’t afford a dedicated security person on their IT team," Eisenman said.
Butler's program is designed to provide a strong foundation in information technology that includes the mechanics of cybersecurity, he said, so smaller companies may not need to hire an extra person to protect their information from cyberthreats.
Smaller companies need to be aware of the threats these days whether they want to or not, he said.
"It's coming to the point we (in business) can't afford not to have it because of the ramifications," Eisenman said. "Who wants to be the next target?"
Butler County's computer network was down for several days last fall as a result of a ransomware attack. Sedgwick County was victimized by a phishing scheme that involved more than a half-million dollars that was supposed to go to contractor Cornejo & Sons for a road maintenance project.
"Oftentimes the human is the weakest link," Eisenman said. "If we can educate the users and technicians, not just the cyberguy, we're going to reduce our security risk."
The FBI has more than 1,200 analysts, agents and computer scientists dedicated to fighting cybercrimes, one of the agency’s top priorities, said Bridget Patton, a spokeswoman for the FBI.
Hackers and cybercriminals basically break down into three groups, Patton said: nations secretly trying to steal intellectual and proprietary information, terrorists looking to cripple infrastructure and organized crime groups attempting to steal money and identities.
More than 300,000 cybercrimes were reported last year alone, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. Those crimes accounted for more than $1.4 billion in losses.
“Everyone has their entire life connected to the internet,” Patton said. That makes for what she called “a target-rich environment.”
And it’s why Eichorn is not concerned about oversaturation in Wichita. The demand for trained workers, he said, is that high.
"Each one is going to have its differences," Eichorn said of the various programs being offered. "They’ll all be beneficial to the students."
Wichita State has the highest profile of the local schools offering cybersecurity education, Eichorn said, but as students look closer, they may find Friends or Newman or Butler to be better fits because of different program offerings.
Both Friends and Wichita State have begun working toward accreditation in cyberdefense from the national Centers of Academic Excellence in partnership with the Department of Homeland Defense and the National Security Agency.
While more than 200 colleges and universities around the country have earned that accreditation, only three Kansas universities are among them.
Fort Hays State's Department of Informatics and the University of Kansas School of Engineering have earned the designation in cyberdefense. Kansas State's Department of Computer Science has earned the designation in research.
Because threats will continue to evolve, cybersecurity programs will need to be adaptive, Schroeder and others said.
"It’s exponentially the greatest thing that’s ever happened in human endeavor," Schroeder said. "This technology is exploding.
"I’m trying to build this program on fundamental things to know, so you can have an idea of what you don’t know," he said.
That can set the stage for exploring technology and applications and allow students to potentially understand new threats as they emerge, he said.