TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at USF’s Sam and Martha Gibbons Alumni Center, discussing cybersecurity. The event began with signage for a “Workforce Education Cybersecurity.” The governor announced a $20 million program to create cybersecurity opportunities through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do since I became governor was increase Florida’s competitiveness in terms of workforce education,” DeSantis said. “And that’s really looking to see what’s in high demand. And that’s really a diverse thing, in terms of what’s going on right now.”

The governor said there were a lot of opportunities for students in Florida, particularly with cybersecurity, and core technical programs.

“We’ve done a lot on some of the core technical education programs that have kind of fallen out of favor, where we’re supporting things like welding, and electrical and HVAC which is very important,” DeSantis said. “Then you have on the cyber end, which is typically viewed as a postsecondary framework, because there are so many opportunities and so much need. But one of the things we wanted to do with all of this is say we can start preparing people with skills prior to being in college.”

The governor said the state ahs worked on getting more cyber IT computer science educational opportunities in K through 12 schools and announced the $20 million funding for cybersecurity education in Florida.

“This funding will be coordinated through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at USF which will work with regional partners to expand programs that help middle school, high school and college students obtain credentials in cybersecurity,” the governor said. “The funding will be used to train new teachers, purchase training equipment that will be used by students and other associated endeavors. This is really the first of its kind program, there’s really no other state that’s using a regional model, that will allow students as early as middle school to start learning credentials in IT and cybersecurity.”

DeSantis said the regional model will start at USF, but expansions would come to other universities such as Florida International University in Miami, and a third region that has yet to be selected. He said the opportunity was open to areas with interests in cybersecurity.

“Yes, it typically requires a four year degree [to work in IT] but there’s no reason why students in middle school and high school can’t start obtaining these skills,” DeSantis said. “You’re finding a lot of demand for them so we want to start as early as possible.”

The governor said since 2019, enrollment in cybersecurity and IT programs has increased by 37%, with nearly 22,000 students in Florida colleges and technical colleges, with another 143,000 middle and high school students involved in cybersecurity and IT pathways.

With the funding, DeSantis said the state hopes to double that enrollment across the state to about 300,000 students by 2024.

“That’s a really big deal, you’re putting students in positions to be able to get skills that going to be immediately in demand,” DeSantis said. “You just have to look at what’s going on around the world. I mean a country like Russia, China, this cyber field is something that they use to try to advance their interests, and of course targets in the United States are going to be absolutely be on the top of their list. You also have rogue states like North Korea and Venezuela and Iran which is engaged in the cyber realm.”

DeSantis referenced a previous hack of the Colonial Pipeline, where the pipeline was taken offline. He said cybersecurity has major impacts on the U.S. energy sector, and that it’s not the only industry with cybersecurity needs to be filled.

“The typical major business, finance, all of these different fields, they’re having to bat off cyber attacks, all the time, it’s a major major thing. And yet, there are 22,000 unfilled high-paying cybersecurity jobs right here in Florida,” DeSantis said. “And the median wage for cybersecurity is estimated over $100,000 per year. So just think about it, what we’re having here and continue to build at USF. You grow up in Florida, you can come here without breaking the bank because we hold the line on tuition and make sure that we keep doing that, make sure you’re not going $100,000 in debt. And then you end up getting trained in this field and you’re going to potentially be making six figures in your early 20s and that is much better than going deep into debt, ending up with a degree that’s putting you at a competitive disadvantage in the workforce.”

DeSantis said the state had created a cybersecurity task force in Florida as well as the Florida Digital Service to strengthen cybersecurity needs across the state and had established the Cybersecurity Advisory Council, headed by Lt. Governor Jeannette Núñez and the FDS, to help state agencies protect their information and resources. He said there were $30 million put aside for cyber needs in the current fiscal budget.

Going forward, DeSantis said FDS had also deployed almost $16 million to support the first state comprehensive cybersecurity initiative to protect cyber infrastructure in Florida. The governor also said state agents were working closely with federal agencies, who handle “primary defense” against cyberattacks. The governor said cyber needs were priorities for legislative leaders, and he was confident the budgetary needs would be filled in the coming state budget.

Admiral Mike McConnell, a former director of the National Security Agency thanked the governor for the $20 million cybersecurity investment and highlighted the importance of the program.

“I’ve been doing this for over 50 years, speaking as a former director of the National Security Agency and the former director of national intelligence, I have focused intently on the cyber threat to the nation. And my message is we are at strategic risk,” McConnell said. “When the governor mentioned the shortage of skilled people, it is actually 600,000 across the nation, and the 22,000 he mentioned in his remarks is actually going up.”

McConnell said the program will allow the state to get more young Floridians interested in and focused on cybersecurity, as well as provide opportunities for well-paying jobs and careers. He said the current “war for talent” happening in the public and private sectors is good for prospective employees, then offered perspective on cybersecurity’s role in the current global political sphere.

“Perspective: The greatest transfer of wealth in history from the United States to China, mostly through cyber means. The greatest transfer of wealth in history,” McConnell said. “Perspective: The Russians so far, in Ukraine, have not attacked our critical infrastructure. They have that option. They have malware deployed currently. We are at risk, it is at a strategic level and we must do the kinds of things the governor just outlined to get our students interested, enrolled and skilled in cybersecurity.”

Dan Holland, Founder and President of Arete Solutions, a St. Petersburg-based cybersecurity business spoke next. He gave three reasons the investment was important, speaking as someone in the cyber field.

“First, as an employer, the national security threat that we are facing is real. There is very high demand for critical skilled labor in this space, it’s often cited as the number one risk factor. While we are now recognizing this as a national security priority, our nation-state competitors have been prioritizing and emphasizing computer science and cybersecurity education for over a generation,” Holland said. “So investments like this go a long way to closing that gap and ensuring we have available, diverse and mature cyber workforce available to us. Second, as a volunteer, I’d like to call out Dr. Candi Ring, Dr. James Welsh from FCIT, and Operation K12 for the work they do. I’ve had the pleasure of working with them for over three years and we’ve identified the lack of teachers willing to take on this complex and difficult topic as the number one constraint for our ability to offer cybersecurity education.”

Holland said investments in education, like the $20 million announced, would help to build a foundation to make cybersecurity a more accessible topic for students and to reward educators who taught it. He said as a father with children of his own, education is the key to a better future, and thanked the governor for the investment in the cybersecurity industry.

Florida Department of Education Senior Chancellor Henry Mack spoke next.

“On behalf of all of our faculty, students, staff and every agency official, thank you governor for right-sizing the emphasis on career and technical education since day one,” Mack said. “And this $20 million helps accelerate that. It’s going to go right into the hands of teachers and school districts and state colleges to help expand pathways for students to train in these critical areas.”

He continued, repeating the points made in previous education and workforce announcements, that a college education wasn’t always a necessity for a good career.

“I guess the point is you don’t have to go to university, that is an excellent and awesome goal for those that want it, but for students who need a certification or credential to get into the workforce to alleviate our risk and to meet industry demand, we have those credentials now and this grant will help them grow exponentially. I guess the last point I want to make is that the Department of Education will meet you where you’re at,” Mack said. “If you are an adult without a high school diploma or you need English as a Second Language learning skills, or numeracy skills or literacy skills, our state colleges and technical colleges are well positioned to get you the skills you need and concurrently enroll you in a CTE program so you’re not wasting any time to accelerate your time to a future and to economic prosperity and mobility. But most importantly in this context, to secure for the wellbeing of Florida, our businesses, commerce and our freedom. So much depends on cybersecurity, and our ability to generate the workforce that industry and businesses need.”

He thanked various members of the education field in Florida. The $20 million’s application details would be released on a new site called CyberFlorida.org on March 8. Mack said he looked forward to releasing the applications to meet the goals the governor had outlined.

DeSantis returned to the podium and discussed President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, saying he had at one point fallen asleep during the speech, but remained focused on issues the president had highlighted while addressing Congress.

“The striking thing is we’ve got a lot of problems in this country, and that’s obviously something you’ve gotta deal with, but it’s striking that so many of these problems have been created by Biden and his administration since he’s become president,” DeSantis said. “Think about gas, people are chafing at the pump because you’ve had 40, 50% increase in the price of gas. Well, why is that? Because they shut down the Keystone Pipeline. Said, no oil from Anwar, nothing in federal lands. So consequently you’re importing more from countries like Russia. That’s bad for consumer because they’re paying higher but then it’s also bad for our national security because that’s effectively the fuel that is giving Putin the ability to do what he’s doing. So we’re energy independent, we should be energy independent, and we would be energy independent if it was not for those really misguided policies that have been done over the last year.”

The governor placed the ongoing inflation and supply chain crises firmly on policies pushed by President Biden and the federal government, and said Florida had been part of the solution to those issues.

“You look to see about inflation, it’s a huge problem. And it’s much higher than 7% or 7.5% percent, when you look at things that really matter. Gas is much higher, food is higher than 7% up, you look at construction costs, building homes and all of this, a huge increase in materials, to be able to do that. And the question is why is this? Well, one thing that’s facilitated it is they printed trillions and trillions of dollars, and the solution, we’re told, is to build trillions more? No that will exacerbate the problem. You look at some of the problems with supply chain, these ships sitting there, you know you have restrictions that have been imposed over the last year or two, that have stopped,” DeSantis said. “We in Florida have been part of the solution, you know we’re going to have a great announcement today, we’ll come out and we’ll make a—we’ll probably do something publicly about it sometime this week, where we’re bringing companies from Long Beach Port to Florida. We’ve had an increase in container ships coming in to Florida ports, because we’ve said we’re open. We have capacity, we want to do it. That’s why we’re working on things like more commercial driver’s licenses, so we have more truck drivers. Because you’ve gotta get the goods somewhere when you do it.”

Still, while he said Florida has been part of the solution to ongoing inflationary pressure and supply chain snarls, the biggest issues was federal spending.

“Printing trillions of dollars is fueling inflation, it will not cure inflation, so it was very frustrating to hear that a problem that was fueled by those policies, that the solution is to do more reckless spending,” DeSantis said.

The governor also said border security issues were Biden’s fault as well. “You look at the border, we want, he said we want a secure border, well he’s the one that opened the border. Are you kidding me?” DeSantis said. “If you look at the increase in people that are coming here illegally, two million people come illegally form over 100 different countries over the last year. Communities, particularly rural communities, are having to deal with an increase in methamphetamine, increase in fentanyl, the cartels are basically eating our lunch. That was all as a result of the policy choices that were made upon him becoming president.”

DeSantis also called out the federal government for its delays on allowing Florida to bring in prescription drugs from other countries to reduce patient costs.

“He mentioned reducing the cost of prescription drugs, Florida has had an application on the federal government’s desk for over a year, to let us buy the drugs from Canada. We had legislated this a couple of years ago. We’ve gone through this byzantine process and we’ve basically sat and the federal government has done nothing,” DeSantis said. “If he just signed on the dotted line, we actually have warehouse ready, we would start bringing it in, we have the labeling ready, and we would be able to save tens of millions of dollars just for the state of Florida for our drug costs, so yes, lower drugs, but you have the opportunity to do some of these things.”

The legislation DeSantis mentioned was passed in his first year as governor, but was not addressed by the federal government under Trump, or Biden, until this past July. Still, the governor’s request for Biden’s signature on the Florida legislation for importing pharmaceuticals has not been addressed directly. Instead, the president signed an executive order in July to allow the importation across the whole country, not just Florida.

Continuing his critique of Biden’s State of the Union, DeSantis took aim at the president’s stances on crime and police funding.

“Now, he says with crime, because crime is totally out of control in many parts of the country, thath tey don’t want to defund, they want to fund police. Well, many of these cities have defunded police or cut police budgets over hte last year and a half, and that’s why you see crime skyrocketing. You have prosecutors that won’t prosecute cases, they just let people get away with crime. Of course that’s going to breed lawlessness. The Biden White House, to this day, still supports eliminating cash bail. Well, that’s one of the reasons you’ve seen crime go off the hook in places like New York. Because they put these people right back on the street, and then they end up committing serious criminal offenses. So, yeah, there’s a lot of problems, it just seems to me that most of these problems are of Joe Biden’s own creation.”

After speaking, the governor took questions.

A few questions focused on legislative topics were touched on, with the governor saying he’d need to see more about it before giving an answer, then he spoke about COVID-19 and the current status of the pandemic and related federal policies.

“I think, I’d have to think about some of the stuff, I mean, I agree if you think about what they’ve done, Fauci is in the witness protection program now. They don’t want him out, no, they’ve never, if you listen to them, they never supported all of these policies that were so destructive, they all want to be like Florida all of a sudden and nothing has changed,” DeSantis said. “There has been no change in the underlying science, the ineffectiveness of those policies was apparent long ago. The destructiveness of those policies was apparent long ago.”

DeSantis described the federal responses to Florida policies over the summer as the government “dipping their nose into Florida’s business” when saying two-year-old children and students needed to be “force-masked” when they left the house, or spent the day at school. He said the federal government was acting like it was “something they didn’t support” previously. Referring back to the State of the Union, DeSantis said they changed their masking requirements leading up to the event, and criticized how the science and policies had shifted.

“They actually said two weeks ago that everyone at the speech had to have an N95 mask, then they changed it,” DeSantis said. “How did the science change in two weeks? It changed. It didn’t change, they changed that because they knew it would be a terrible visual to have all of these people there suffering in masks, socially distant while the rest of the country is out living their lives. I’m glad, that I think it was because of politics, I don’t think this was a legitimate conversion, I think they’re getting negative polling and I think most Americans associate these never-ending restrictions with their administration and like minded governors and mayors.”

After saying the policy shift came due to negative polling and not legitimate changes of heart, he repeated previous commentary on how pro-lockdown politicians still came to Florida for vacation, even during the pandemic.

DeSantis said people working at resorts have told him they’ve seen those critical of Florida COVID policies, but he said he was glad people are pivoting away from the mask requirements, particularly for school children and school shutdowns. He said the masking policy will have potentially huge ramifications in the future.

“We stood up for kids in Florida, we stood up for parents, we stood up for education because we thought it was important, and I think that our kids are going to be much better off than a lot of these kids in other states,” DeSantis said. “Even to that day last night, you have them saying no masks in the Capitol, which I support, but they’re still forcing kids in elementary school in certain parts of the country to do this,” DeSantis said. “I’m glad that the conversion has happened, I don’t think it’s necessarily genuine, I think it’s more driven by political science but here’s the stakes I think for just people in Florida and the rest of the country, but once we get through the midterms I think people that are of that mindset will probably look to clamp down again. So the only way you can be sure, that your freedoms are gonna be respected, is by supporting people who actually have a demonstrated record of supporting your freedoms.”

Turning to the ongoing military activity in Ukraine and Russia, DeSantis called President Vladimir Putin an “authoritarian gas station attendant,” and said Russia as a country was a hollowed out nation with the exception of its energy sector.

“Yes they have legacy nuclear weapons which makes them much more dangerous than if they didn’t have those, but he’s in a situation where his ideology I think is to try to reassemble some of the lost glory of what they had. Now, the Soviet Union was not a glorious entity. I mean, this is one of the most evil regimes in modern history and the result was a lot of deaths because of Soviet Communism and Chinese Communism in the 20th Century. But his view is that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a bad thing, but he’s being fueled because America’s not serious about energy independence right now and Europe is not serious at all.”

DeSantis said Europe is funding Putin by not steering themselves away from Russian oil, and praised the Ukrainian people for their stand against Russia.

“When I was in Congress under President Trump, we funded a lot of weapons for Ukraine to be able to defend themselves, I think that has helped them to put up a fight. I think they’ve done better than a lot of people thought. Nevertheless, they’re putting a lot of machinery, a lot of heavy equipment inside that country, you know, that’s going to be very difficult for Ukraine to keep at bay indefinitely,” DeSantis said. “However, what I think is going to end up happening is you’re going to end up with these Ukrainians engaging in guerilla warfare and it’s going to be like death by a thousand cuts.”

The governor said he believed that Putin had miscalculated, but that a key position the U.S. should take would be to reopen the Keystone XL Pipeline, production on federal lands and commit to energy independence instead of buying Russian oil. He said he wasn’t sure if sanctions would have an impact.

“I think international opinion has really gone against Putin in ways that he really didn’t quite anticipate, so it may have an impact, but if you hit him on energy, that would be a crippling blow and those oligarchs wouldn’t like it. And Putin, he’s propped up by those oligarchs.”

DeSantis said if the oligarchs end their support of Putin, it would put the Russian president in a difficult situation. He said the decision to go into Ukraine by Russia was based on the “failed” American exit from Afghanistan, and that Iran and Chinese leadership were taking note of the current White House administration’s actions. DeSantis praised the actions of the Ukrainian people for taking a stand against the Russians, and criticized a hypothetical response by the French, if they had been invaded instead.