BY BRAD HARPER
MONTGOMERY, Ala. —
Dominique McCarroll gets surprised by how little people seem to know about computers here. It's something the Alabama State University senior said she's seen a lot as she pursued a computer information systems degree and got a security certification.
"There were things I thought would have been common knowledge," McCarroll said.
If anything, her kind of knowledge seems to be getting less common as the world goes digital. A study released this month by CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists shows that computer and IT job openings jumped 13 percent in the last decade, while computer and IT degrees fell 11 percent.
Montgomery soon may become a leader in helping to reverse that trend, partially because Gunter Annex's recent designation as an information hub will fuel the need for more local education.
Plans are underway to bring ASU, Auburn Montgomery and Troy University IT education together in the RSA Dexter Avenue building downtown, on a floor near the state's high-tech data storage facility overlooking the Capitol. Joe Toole of the RSA Leasing Office said the universities have shared their needs and planners are working to make sure everyone has enough space.
Others also are involved in the plans.
"We have in fact asked for some help from the state of Alabama, and we have been meeting with the Air Force," Mayor Todd Strange said.
The facility would offer traditional university courses as well as security certification and professional development training. Strange said initial plans to locate the classes at Maxwell Air Force Base were nixed because of worries about whether students could easily access the base.
But Air Force officials remain closely involved, in part because of Gunter Annex.
"They're very interested in it because what they need are certifications, degrees and training," Strange said. "So they would be a natural user of that. You can extend that into the private sector, even into the state (government) sector."
Cyber attacks this year have targeted several Alabama-based institutions, from state government to Regions Bank.
"Recent events have raised awareness of the people," said Bill Zhong, head of Troy University's Department of Computer Science. "In the next 15 to 20 years cyber security will be the biggest field in IT. We have already had lots of requests from federal court systems and police departments to provide cyber security training."
AUM Chancellor John Veres said he met with other university leaders in Auburn on Friday about how to teach faculty, staff and students "to be a little bit more paranoid" about online information, amid phishing attempts at other schools nationwide.
"One of the conundrums of the computer age is that tech advancements have allowed us to store vast stockpiles of information like the ones the Air Force has," Veres said. "While it makes it easier to access that information, it also creates threats."
The Air Force soon will have a lot more information to protect here. The Pentagon announced last month that Montgomery would be home to one of eight Core Data Centers, as it consolidates 200 existing facilities nationwide. That's expected to bring jobs, investment and the need for more expertise.
Zhong said similar situations in other states have led to major training centers.
"I've been doing research and most, if not all, of these (cyber security initiatives) center on a federal installation or military base," Zhong said, pointing to a University of Maryland cyber security program near the U.S. Cyber Command headquarters at Fort Meade. "There are many others that are similarly situated."
Zhong said Montgomery has advantages to exploit that and bring in more students, and two major highways help them get here.
"Students tend to migrate to where there's going to be jobs available," Veres said.
ASU computer information systems professor Kamal Hingorani said that's already started. After ASU's CIS program fell from about 75 students in 2000 to less than 35 in recent years, he said the numbers are beginning to swing upward again. He said the school's internship program with the Alabama Department of Transportation is a good example of the demand.
"The last few years these students were not finding jobs, but now everyone who finishes this training gets a job," Hingorani said. "We've had three hired in the past month. There is a need."
One of Hingorani's students, McCarroll sparked her interest in computers through a trade program at Mattie T. Blount High School in Mobile County before moving on to ASU.
Strange hopes programs like MTEC at Montgomery Public Schools can provide a similar pipeline for kids in Montgomery who are interested in technology.
Strange said he sees the need for more computer engineers all the time as he visits with River Region manufacturers.
"We were at GKN (Aerospace) last week. They need engineer after engineer after engineer. We're excited about this (education center). Now whether we can pull it off or not, from a standpoint of dollars and cents, that'll really be (the question). But it's almost too important to not do."