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The University of West Florida is planning to request $15 million from the Florida Legislature to establish a new Department of Cybersecurity.

The proposal, presented to the university’s Board of Trustees last week, is part of a larger initiative to build the Pensacola region’s reputation as the “Cyber Coast,” a national hub for cybersecurity education, careers, research and innovation.

“It could be an area that Pensacola can sort of hang its hat on,” said Jaromy Kuhl, dean of the Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering at UWF. “If Pensacola is known as the cyber coast, then I think it’s going to bring a lot of jobs to Pensacola. A lot of cyber firms and businesses are going to choose to locate themselves here, and they are going to have access to a talent pool that they wouldn’t have access to elsewhere. … I think that’s big for Pensacola and big for our local economy.”

► UWF, Escambia County elections staff partner to enhance cybersecurity preparations

► UWF secures $2.4 million grant to support cybersecurity students

The proposal, which is rolled into UWF’s 2021-2022 Legislative Budget Request, is called, “A Cyber Coast for Florida’s Future.” If the $15,284,183 ask is approved by the governor and Legislature, it would allow UWF to create the first dedicated cyber department in a Florida university; expand UWF’s capabilities for education, workforce development and research; and conduct targeted outreach to recruit more diverse groups such as women, minorities and veterans into the field.

The proposal estimates the funding would allow the university to double cybersecurity enrollment from about 750 students to 1,500 over five years.

Cybersecurity is a catch-all term for a variety of disciplines related to protecting computer systems and data from theft or damage. Many cybersecurity professionals work at banks, retailers and government institutions where they may help protect files and networks, create security plans or respond to hacking attempts and data breaches.

As commerce and social activities have increasingly shifted online, cybersecurity has become ever more important. In fact, it ranks among the fastest growing career fields in the U.S., however, the pool of people seeking jobs in cybersecurity hasn’t kept pace.

“Here in Northwest Florida, we have over 1,600 unfilled cybersecurity jobs,” said Eman El-Sheikh, director of UWF’s Center for Cybersecurity. “Across the country, we have over half a million unfilled cybersecurity jobs. And those numbers are going in the wrong direction, they’re increasing. What we want to do — through the proposed expansion of the university’s cybersecurity mission and the Cyber Coast — is help 

bridge that gap and prepare as many qualified cybersecurity professionals as we can through flexible and diverse pathways.”

Currently, the university provides a master’s and bachelor’s degree program in the Hal Marcus College of Science and Engineering. Kuhl noted that while cybersecurity is housed with other tech-centric programs such as computer science and information technology, it’s a different animal with a lot of potential for growth and expansion.

“When we developed the master’s program, we wanted it to be such that it captures a wide background of students,” Kuhl said. “Not just the ones who were in software engineering and not just the ones who were in some kind of IT field, but also the ones that have a background in criminal justice. There’s a place for them. The ones that have a background in management, there’s a place for them. So, what we’d like to do is try to capture as many backgrounds as we can, because the cyber field is so wide.”

UWF partners with a variety of local entities and institutions to help prime the community for cyber careers. Its “Cybersecurity for All”i s a flexible education and training program designed to help folks from all backgrounds get hands-on experience and industry certifications. The university also works with K-12 students through fun cyber camps and activities to get them excited about the field and build a pipeline of future graduates.

►  UWF GenCyber camp prepares kids for $85K careers

► UWF offering cybersecurity work courses to general public

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Marcus Henry works on his computer during an “Intro to Cybersecurity” class at the University of West Florida in Pensacola on Thursday. (Photo: Gregg Pachkowski/gregg@pnj.com)

El-Sheikh said part of their mission is not just to grow the field, but to make it’s more diverse and is open to people of all interests, experiences and backgrounds.

“I’m a big believer that diversity is a necessary ingredient for innovation and advancement,” El-Sheikh said. “We want to make sure that all students and all young professionals across Northwest Florida and beyond are aware of the exciting career opportunities in cybersecurity and opportunities that live right here along the coast.”

In recent years, UWF has distinguished itself as a rising star in the world of cybersecurity. The university, in partnership with the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security, provides leadership to advance cyber defense education among colleges and universities in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and South Carolina.

UWF has hosted a gathering of the biggest and brightest minds in the field, provided security training to elections officials across Florida and El-Sheikh has taken to stage to discuss UWF’s cybersecurity programs at a NATO conference in Portugal.

A breakout of how UWF proposes to use the requested $15 million for the “A Cyber Coast for Florida’s Future” initiative listed 47 positions with about $6.5 million in salary and benefits, $2 million for capital outlay, $2.5 million for financial aid and around $4 million for other expenses and personnel services.

Aside from cyber security, the Legislative Budget Request includes a request for $3 million to support success and affordability for students; $1.7 million to enhance science, technology, engineering and math programs; and $1 million for talent development.

Kevin Robinson can be reached at krobinson4@pnj.com or 850-435-8527.

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