Empty promises, as coal dwindles, manufacturing falls to automation, but cyber rises

Every election season, and sometimes in between when politicians need to boost their standing by “connecting with constituents,” they lay tired, old promises – that they have no hope of fulfilling – on hurting, but hopeful voters.

Just last week Donald Trump repeated his campaign mantra to "put our miners back to work" and in February he told Michigan autoworkers, he's going to bring back manufacturing jobs.

Paul Bledsoe, who served in the Interior Department under President Bill Clinton, didn't mince words in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "Sheer nonsense,” he said of Trump's claims of a coal revival. "No company will bid on new leases when there's already a glut of unwanted coal on the market." Not to mention newer, cleaner energy sources that don't require people to blacken their lungs in underground mines.

Likewise, manufacturing, thanks in large part to automation (Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently came out in favor of using robots – “I'm not in favor of trying to hold back technological advance, he said on CNBC), isn't going to produce the kind of line work and other jobs that kept our parents and great-grandparents in what we in the South like to call “high cotton” during the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

Not. Going. To. Happen.

But that's not the end of the story – there's plenty of opportunity for people seeking work and trying to help their kids find a secure career path. Guess where?

We all know that cybersecurity is a job generator (what, you thought I'd forgotten this is a security blog?) because the need for skilled professionals is so great and, partly, too, because smaller and mid-sized companies like those found in our industry have replaced the big, whopping corporations where jobs used to be found.

After all the wild promises about coal and manufacturing -- and inevitable dashed dreams -- flitting across my TV screen in the last few years, I was delighted to see something in my inbox last December from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) about the Pinckney Cyber Training Institute and Sentinel Center, billed as the first high school cybersecurity training facility in the U.S. The center is part of the larger Michigan Cyber Range initiative aimed at building a trained and robust cybersecurity workforce. Michigan, of course, is home to the U.S. auto industry and has been hit hard by economic decline and the changes to auto manufacturing.

But Jennifer Tisdale, cybersecurity and intelligent transportation systems manager at the MEDC, who says cybersecurity is at the top of her organization's list, tells me that Michigan's leaders recognized that the auto industry, transforming as driverless vehicle technology and the mobility industry evolve, still offered tremendous potential for workers, particularly young people. “We started with what we do really well…cars,” she says, noting that advances in manufacturing “has hit Michigan very hard.”

Teaming with leaders in state government, business and education, the state launched the Cyber Range program, soliciting requests for proposals that if accepted are funded by grants.

The response has been remarkable, Tisdale says, and none so surprising as the proposal from Pinckney, located in a small community in a “very rural” Michigan. Typically, facilities are collocated in universities, she says, but Pinckney offered up a progressive plan for a center to get students engaged in cybersecurity. “The community has responded, they chose to embrace it and prepare students and parents” for a cyber future, Tisdale says. Students can take 22 cybersecurity courses and get there CISSP certificates. And they can earn college credit.

Michigan's Cyber Range program overall has worked out even better than Tisdale and her cohorts expected. “What we've been experiencing is universities calling up official schools and enterprises contacting universities to close the talent gap,” she says.

Cyber Range, she adds, doesn't just have STEM  programs and professional development, but “provides a sandbox for apps”—something that automakers might have, but their suppliers often don't. “It's a customizable, open learning environment, too,” she says. Now that the initiative has opened the public portals, automakers can get skilled workers from the ground up. Collaborating auto manufacturers can conceivably spot talent at the high school level – where Tisdale says tech ability is “a part of their DNA” – and fund scholarships through universities, virtually guaranteeing young people a job in the future, which provides incentive for staying in school and doing well.

Michigan Cyber Range also offers retraining opportunities for workers already out in the field.

I like to call what Michigan and other states, cities and industries are trying to do with these initiatives, the “Kinky Boots” phenomenon.  You know, the Broadway musical scored by Cyndi Lauper? Where a longstanding and once successful but now slipping family shoe business turns its talents to making out-sized and sturdy stilettos for cross-dressers and finds new opportunity.

That's what Michigan Cyber Range is doing. And small-town Pinckney shows that even the most rural of communities are willing to accept hard truths about declining jobs when they can see a path to new opportunities (maybe that should force the rest of us to reevaluate how we assess whether cities, towns and regions will be not only receptive to, but drivers of, innovation and progress).

That's where Bernie Sanders tried to steer Kentucky coal miners when he had their ear in a recent town hall and bluntly (but kindly) prodded them to admit traditional coal jobs were not coming back. A little straight talk like that – and some encouragement in the right direction – could help lead those people who need jobs and security into cybersecurity where both promise to be plentiful for a while to come.

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