Cybersecurity in Valley getting a boost

MISSION — Texas Workforce Commissioner Julian Alvarez visited the Mission Center for Education and Economic Development on Thursday to formally announce a $100,000 state grant intended to provide cybersecurity training to Rio Grande Valley residents.

“Where before when we would mention Mission, Texas, we would start talking about vacationing, Ruby Reds and things like that, now we are talking about terms like coding-camps, cybersecurity and that’s all starting off here,” Alvarez said.

About two weeks ago the Mission Economic Development Corporation launched the first eight-week cybersecurity training program with an initial cohort of 40 students. The students will get paid for their time spent in the training and have a chance to become certified as cybersecurity analysts.

The announcement of the grant was celebrated alongside the passing of House Bill 728 in the state legislature, which will allow high school students to receive math or science credit for advanced computer science courses.

“This is huge in terms of advancing,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “It fits right in with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). … Before it didn’t count toward graduation and it didn’t count when applying for college. Now it does.”

The bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Guerra, D- Mission, co-authored by Rep. Sergio Muñoz Jr. and sponsored by Hinojosa in the Senate, among other supporters.

Under the bill, the Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath is tasked with developing program standards that will take effect on Sept. 1, 2018.

“For us, it’s always a blessing and a great opportunity in the legislature to work to prepare our talented young people that live here in our communities for the future,” Muñoz Jr. said at the event.

Computer science courses are currently treated as extracurricular or electives, but with this new added weight officials hope more students will be encouraged to participate and get exposure to these fields at an earlier age.

“By allowing high school students to take computer science courses in high school if there is interest, we are basically building a ramp between high school to these programs,” said Alex Meade, CEO of the Mission EDC. “These programs, in eight weeks you can get certified and you can be making $80,000 to $90,000 a year.”

Meade was part of the group leading the cyber security training. The city’s EDC, in partnership with Code RGV, received about 230 applicants out of which only 40 could be selected for the inaugural cohort. Applications were open to residents of Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties.

This first group committed to attending classes eight hours per day for eight weeks, which could lead them to receive four certifications from the international vendor CompTIA, which include A+, Network+, Security+ and CSA+.

The grant will be used to pay for books, certification, class expenses and pay the participants $500 per month plus an extra $500 bonus if they achieve all four certifications, Meade said.

Even though this is a one-time grant, the plan is to use the results from this pilot program to apply for more grants and continue offering these courses in the future.

“The number of applicants that we had for this was unbelievable,” Meade said. “We are already looking at other grants and get more funding, because we want to make sure that we address that demand. People are asking for this type of training.”