Georgia Spreading The High Tech Wealth

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Governor Nathan Deal used his State of the State address last week to highlight a new Georgia Cyber Innovation and Training Center to be built in Augusta. The center will be developed and operated in conjunction with the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command at Fort Gordon, Augusta University, and private sector interests. The center has possibilities to go well beyond job training for Army related jobs, or for the addition of specialized majors at Augusta U. It has the potential to change the entire employment/wage scale for Augusta, and brand a new industry for the state.

For those having difficulty seeing the transformational aspect of this center I suggest they look at one of Georgia’s other cities on a river, Columbus. Decades ago, then Governor Zell Miller used a training center to keep Columbus based Total Systems (now TSYS) downtown. They were looking at moving as the fast growing payment processor couldn’t find enough trained IT workers to fill their positions locally.

The state partnered with Columbus State University to develop programs tailored to the company, which continued to grow. Today, a renewed and vibrant downtown Columbus is anchored by a corporate campus for TSYS on the north, and Columbus State on the south.

The impact has been felt far beyond Columbus. Today, Georgia based companies process 70% of the credit card payments for U.S. purchases. Because Governor Miller and Columbus leaders had the foresight to create qualified workers for an emerging industry, Georgia has been the leader in the movement to a cashless economy.

Augusta now sits at the forefront of a similar opportunity. Cyber Security is already a major component of the information technology industry. In fact, it’s quite complementary to the payment processing industry that has already been embraced by Georgia. As we’ve seen with outfits like WikiLeaks, Cyber Security goes well beyond safeguarding money. It’s about data.

Data is information, and information has value. Things of value are targets for theft. Thus, the ability to keep proprietary information private also has value. For us to trust that our emails are private, our online records are secure, and access to our accounts are between us and our banks, we’re going to need cyber security to stay a step ahead of the hackers.

How does this help Augusta? It creates a new source of well trained workers next to a large and growing employer – The Army’s Cyber Command. Private sector employers will locate outside the gates of Fort Gordon to be close to the employees they manage. The ability to find and retain talent in Augusta will determine how many employees ultimately get located in the region that go beyond jobs needed for the Army.

I have some experience in this area. In another life, I worked out of an office in Peachtree City Georgia managing the telephone network of the U.S. Army Reserve. The Army Reserve prior to the last Base Realignment was headquartered out of Fort McPherson, and the CIO division of the Army Reserve moved itself into private offices in Peachtree City. While the government leased a couple of floors of one office building, private companies including mine that supported the Reserve occupied most of an adjacent building.

From that regional headquarters, we supported more than our clients across the street. We grew our book of federal business (and employee base) to manage accounts in Newport News Virginia, Carlyle Barracks Pennsylvania, Huntsville Alabama, and other places. One foothold produced many more jobs supporting many other government and non-government clients.

The scale of the Cyber Command at Fort Gordon will dwarf the scale of activities once in Peachtree City. As such, private companies that support the efforts of the Command will locate near the Fort. But the benefits won’t stop there.

Georgia is committing to training local workers with extremely hard to find specialties to support this effort. These employees will be in demand, and will have opportunities that extend beyond Augusta. They may find opportunities in the payment processing industry in Columbus or the North Atlanta suburbs, or may choose to go elsewhere. That’s OK. Either way, Georgia wins.

Full support of the Cyber Command and its related industries will give an immediate boost to the Augusta area with high wage, high skilled jobs. It’s also one more city added to Georgia’s brand as an emerging technology based economy. The Cyber Innovation Center is just one more example that when Georgia means business, it increasingly means high tech ones.

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Colleges, vocational schools and public services linking up with commerce drives better communities and philantropy, a win, win. When friction sets in it is a loose, loose.