Ed VanHoose was the IT guy. He did troubleshooting, scrubbed computers and immersed himself in cybersecurity at the Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives as digital menaces emerged in 2007.
Then he took a major leap of faith.
“I believed in the co-op business model,” said VanHoose, who grew up on co-op lines in Illinois and Missouri. “It spoke to me greatly. I wanted to participate to the utmost. That meant going to the CEO role.”
VanHoose took the helm of Clay Electric Cooperative in Flora, Illinois, in 2014, after earning his cooperative leadership credentials through NRECA. Now he is encouraging cybersecurity professionals to join co-ops for fulfilling and exciting careers on the frontlines.
Recruiting the best and brightest for cybersecurity at co-ops can be challenging. Many IT professionals may not know about co-ops or falsely consider them too unsophisticated to offer a challenging environment.
Yet, as he speaks at colleges and other recruiting events about cybersecurity careers, VanHoose says he finds young people gravitating toward the co-op model.
“The key point is member-owned working directly for membership,” he said. “Millennials get a bad rap, but our business model appeals to them and is a great tool for recruitment. They want to work someplace where they earn a salary and have a mission. They can have both at a co-op.”
VanHoose recommends that co-ops looking to beef up their cybersecurity personnel start engaging at high school and community college levels for potential recruits. Have a presence at your closest large university, and be sure to join programs like the FBI InfraGard, in which businesses and government work in partnership, he says. Then, follow through by providing internships.
“These young people need to know we exist,” he said. “Co-ops participating in those circles will be exposed to the right people. You can’t just put an ad in the newspaper.”
At the statewide, he initiated an internship program along the IT and cybersecurity career paths. Because of that, VanHoose now knows professionals at the FBI, major universities and several software vendors in Illinois who started as interns for the AIEC.
VanHoose recalls his first connections to co-ops through their newsletters and statewide magazines. “I got to know the co-op, gave it a try, and this is how it worked out,” he said.
Now, he just wants others to have the same opportunities.
Cathy Cash is a staff writer at NRECA.