Whatcom Community College's cybersecurity program could mean job growth locally


BELLINGHAM - Local high-tech industry leaders are optimistic that a recent designation given to Whatcom Community College will help attract companies and jobs to this area.

The Community College was recently named the lead institution of CyberWatch West, a regional cybersecurity education consortium funded by the National Science Foundation.

The designation will help enhance the cyber-security program locally and across the West Coast, helping supply an industry that is seeking more skilled people, said Corrinne Sande, a WCC faculty member and director for Cyberwatch West.

"These skills are in high demand," Sande said. "Most students with these skills can get jobs right out of Whatcom Community College."

With the college getting more national recognition for its cybersecurity program, it is developing a larger pool of workers with the skills that could attract high-tech companies to this area, said Mark Knittel, the owner of Bellingham-based Ovation Technical Services and chairman of the local Technology Alliance Group.

"Our challenge is to try and keep these students here, so we'll be working to attract companies to this area," said Knittel, adding that students coming out of the college program generally want to stay in this area, so a growing company will want to be able to tap that labor pool.

As the world continues to become more connected through the Internet, more workers are needed to help protect businesses and government agencies from cyber attacks.

"(Cyber) attacks are increasing, not decreasing," Knittel said.

He said smaller companies are vulnerable if they don't have, or haven't hired, a company to look for vulnerabilities. Bigger companies tend to have their own information technology staff, but also tend to be a bigger target for hackers.

Sande said money tends to be the motivating factor behind cyber attacks, usually with the goal of stealing information. Other attackers could include a disgruntled employee, a hacker who doesn't like the company, or terrorists.

Combine those motivations with the fact that new technology can open new holes in the system to exploit, and the result is more value is now being placed on people with cyber-security skills.

Knittel agreed, saying it's becoming a required skill for information technology positions.

"Just two years ago I would have said that cyber-security is a nice add-on skill," he said. "Now I think it's mandatory."

Even before the regional designation, the college's cyber-security program was in a growth spurt. The computer information system program has 85 first- and second-year students, about double the enrollment of last year, Sande said.

Knittel is pleased with how computer information programs are growing, not only at WCC but also at Western Washington University. The two schools recently set up a program where credits at WCC count toward a four-year degree at Western. Knittel said that development is a big deal.

"We're really gaining strength in our computer science programs, an area where there's enormous demand," he said. "If we're going to grow the local technology industry, we can't do it casually. We need to delineate growth areas and foster future employees."

Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business Blog at bellinghamherald.com/business-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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