NIST to help retrain NASA employees as cyber specialists

Cybersecurity research institute would prepare laid-off workers to fill the tens of thousands of technicians the federal government needs.

The top cybersecurity educator at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is helping a public-private consortium to open a research institute that would retrain NASA contractors who will be laid off from the shuttle program as early as next month.

Nearly 9,000 employees representing a total income of $600 million could be displaced by the termination of the space shuttle program next year, particularly along the space coast, a 72-mile-long area in east-central Florida where the Kennedy Space Center is located. United Space Alliance expects to layoff on Oct. 1 between 800 and 1,000 employees in its Florida-based shuttle workforce, company officials announced in July. Layoffs already have begun elsewhere in the country, and more are expected as the shuttle is retired in 2011, NASA spokesman Michael Curie said on Friday. But NASA is not reducing its workforce.

The Obama administration has committed $40 million to help the unemployed in Florida transfer their skills to other fields, including information technology and national security. On Sept. 1, the Commerce Department began a competition for $35 million in grants to fund projects that align the talents of affected workers with the economic needs of the region. One example of an initiative that might qualify for funding is the Global Institute for Cybersecurity and Research headquartered near the Kennedy Space Center, said Ernest McDuffie, lead for NIST's National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education.

"They're going to take this workforce that's getting ready to be laid off, fired, and retrain them to keep them employed," McDuffie said. "They really need to have something up and running within three to six months."

Quickly cultivating new cybersecurity specialists also is critical for the government. Current shortages of qualified information assurance staff have weakened agencies' defenses against cyberattacks, according to federal officials. The CIA has estimated that about 1,000 security experts in the nation possess the skills to safeguard cyberspace, but the country needs about 30,000.

McDuffie traveled to Kennedy Space Center in late August for a daylong meeting with officials from NASA, National Security Agency, Homeland Security Department, local schools and the business community to help start the institute.

The timeline for retraining contract workers in cybersecurity could vary from six months to four years, depending on the person's interests, McDuffie said. Most of the affected employees are engineers, hardware technicians and other staff with scientific and management backgrounds, according to the Task Force on Space Industry Workforce and Economic Development, a federal interagency effort.

McDuffie said the personnel will have an advantage in starting a new career because they are accustomed to taking continuing education courses.

"Everyone who is in a sophisticated field has to embrace the culture of continual learning. Going back to school to learn additional technical skills is probably a no-brainer for them. The hardest part depends on what their individual skills are," he said.

The institute will coordinate a range of educational opportunities, including noncredit courses, undergraduate programs and masters degrees, said Deborah Kobza, executive director of the new initiative.

Skills that can be acquired within six months include cybersecurity professional development courses and certification tracks for cyber IT management, network defense, forensics and system administration, she added.

A person who has high-level technical skills in computer science may need only a six-month course to find new work, McDuffie said. A less-experienced job seeker may opt to complete a two-year program at a vocational school or obtain a four-year degree at a college, he noted.

"It's also possible that the institute itself could employ people" for immediate work, he said.

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