Macomb County’s automotive and defense companies seek to grow cybersecurity talent

This year’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), held at Cobo Center in Detroit, is abuzz with a flurry of new technological innovation as automakers and early-stage startups exhibit side-by-side reminiscent of the New York World’s Fair of yesterday. From the show floor to the halls of the revamped AutoMobili-D exhibit, the topic on everyone’s mind is all about the future – and how Detroit will play a role in this brave new world of automated, electrified and shared vehicle deployment.

While many attending the show’s Industry Preview Days were caught up on the glitz and glamour of the shiny, new vehicles – hands down the biggest draw for motorheads – others, including government leaders and industry insiders used the global draw of NAIAS as an opportunity to talk about some of automotive’s most pressing challenges: talent and cybersecurity.

The Macomb Answer

Macomb County, home to a robust defense industry including Selfridge Air National Guard Base and the U.S. Army’s Tank Automotive Research Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC), as well as more than $10 billion in automotive OEM investment since 2010, is embracing the digital talent challenge head on.

“Cybersecurity is a growing challenge for both the public and private sectors and one that Macomb is proud to be leading the way on,” said Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel during remarks to stakeholders at the Michigan Automotive and Defense Cyber Awareness Team (MADCAT) meeting on Jan. 18.

“Right now, I can light up any number of intersections with LED lights right from my iPad,” Hackel added. “Imagine the implications on a larger scale if the bad guys can hack into these systems and stop a car from moving or a tank from shooting on the battlefield.”

“We need to understand what the industry’s needs are and share that information to make sure we have the right talent to solve these problems,” Hackel said.

That’s why, in 2017, MADCAT launched the Cybersecurity Career Pathway Project. Funded by a grant through the Michigan Defense Center, the project is working with state and regional partners including Macomb Community College, Wayne State University, Macomb Intermediate School District, TARDEC, Michigan Defense Center and General Dynamics Land Systems to create a regional assessment to determine workforce needs.

“This information will enable us to orchestrate career pathway mapping, identify gaps in available training and support services, and create an action plan to increase coordination, service provision and transferability of cybersecurity education across the region,” said Vicky Rad, deputy director of Macomb County Department of Planning and Economic Development.

Ultimately, the project will result in articulation agreements between K-12, community colleges, universities and employers. It is part of a broad outreach campaign designed to increase youth interest in related cybersecurity educational pathways.

Farming the Next Generation of Talent

For Jeff Jaczkowski, associate director of ground systems cyber engineering at TARDEC, the project couldn’t come at a better time.

“When you think of the lyrics to the U.S. Marines hymn, ‘we fight our country’s battles on land and on sea,’ if I were braver, I would suggest that the Marines add ‘and in cyberspace,’” Jaczkowski joked.

But Jaczkowski said a lack of talent to fill government jobs — where lower pay, less flexibility and extensive background checks can be turnoffs for young professionals — is no laughing matter.

“It’s much harder to lure someone away from a private sector six-figure salary and the option to work from home in the name of ‘duty to country,’” he said. “Programs like this give us the ability to go into schools and talk to these kids early and make sure they have the right skillset so that we can compete with other agencies to hire and retain the most skilled cyber workforce.”

Cyber talent has been the puzzle to solve for automotive, too, said Kevin Baltes, director and chief information security officer for General Motors. But because both automotive and defense work parallel to one another in developing and testing leaner, smarter and more advanced mobility solutions, working collaboratively is key. Baltes said GM engages in everything from hack-a-thons to partnering with universities like Oakland University, Michigan State University, University of Michigan and Wayne State University to craft curriculum and degree programs around automotive cybersecurity.

One of the biggest challenges Michigan faces, Baltes said, is attracting talent from Silicon Valley and the West Coast.

“There’s some really cool stuff we are working on here, but if it is not Apple or Google, it’s hard to get that talent to come to the Midwest,” he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder praised the work of MADCAT, as well as initiatives like the Michigan Cyber Range, to position Michigan as a leader in cyber careers.

“When you want to be the world’s leader in mobility and want to leverage information technology in the automotive and defense industry, that’s a terrific opportunity. But it wouldn’t be right if you weren’t equally responsible on the cybersecurity side,” Snyder said. “Every positive can have negative consequences and risk factors and problems. It is imperative that we keep moving together on this issue. If you stop to take a breath, you are at risk. The world is only going to get more challenging.”

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