Older workers are a secret weapon against cyber attacks

The writer is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a think-tank

The ransomware attack that last week brought down Sweden’s second-largest supermarket chain demonstrated yet again how vulnerable advanced economies are to disruption. In this case, a hacker group targeted a US-based IT company and spread malware through its corporate network, including to Sweden’s Coop supermarkets. After Coop’s cash registers became inoperable, the company had little choice but to close about 500 stores. It was not a minor inconvenience — in many Swedish towns, Coop shops are the only supermarket.

Disruptions like these are happening with more frequency. In May, another ransomware attack disabled Colonial Pipeline, which transports 45 per cent of the oil consumed on the east coast of the US. Asked at a senate hearing whether his workforce was able to operate the pipeline manually, Colonial Pipeline’s chief executive Joseph Blount said that they had muddled through. But a lot of the people who once operated the pipeline by hand, “they’re retiring or they’re gone”, he added. “Fortunately we still have that last bit of that generation.”

Workers over 50 are often overlooked in favour of younger workers with more modern skills. Yet as the ransomware attacks have shown, a digital bias has left some companies exposed. Older workers often began their careers before computer systems were introduced. By acknowledging their under-appreciated expertise of manual operations, economies would be better equipped to withstand disruption from cyber attacks and natural disasters such as earthquakes, heatwaves or flooding.

A generation ago, factories, power plants, hospitals, offices, airports and railways were operated with sturdier tools. “Our older power plants were designed to be started manually, but we have often taken away this option or not maintained employees’ skills to do such a manual restart,” says Erik Brandsma, the former chief of the Swedish utility Jämtkraft.

The value of older workers with deep operational knowledge was demonstrated two years ago at the Norwegian metals and electricity company Norsk Hydro. Like Colonial Pipeline, Norsk Hydro received a ransom demand but, instead of a shut down, a group of veteran workers switched to manual operations, removing the company from the attackers’ claws. “Without them, our production would have plummeted,” says Halvor Molland, Norsk Hydro’s spokesperson. “They had knowledge that existed 20 years ago but not today, and fortunately some are still employed by us while others returned from retirement to help.”

Aviation is one of the few industries to have kept manual skills alive. All pilots must be able to fly manually because aeroplanes’ sophisticated systems, such as global positioning systems, can be knocked out. For the same reason, the US Navy is once again teaching its sailors celestial navigation.

Other industries should catch up. “Bringing these skills back in would make our economies and societies more robust and sustainable,” Brandsma says. “It would save lives and avoid suffering and high costs.”

The UK government has made a step in the right direction. In its integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, released in March, it announced plans for a “civilian reserve” of experts across all sectors who can help in a crisis. Experienced “analogue” workers as part of this reserve would boost UK resiliency.

Given the growing occurrence of cyber attacks, many companies will no doubt see the value of having the option of switching to manual operations. The veteran workers exist and may be hiding in plain sight — men and women with skills in running pre-digital manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, financial services and much else. The task for companies is to ensure that these valuable employees are recognised for what they are — and that their skills are passed down to a new generation.

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