Tech Firm, Nonprofit Build Talent Pipeline


What do North Little Rock’s First Orion and the nonprofit Forge Institute in Little Rock have in common? They’re both building the tech talent pipeline in Arkansas, albeit differently.

The Forge Institute, founded in 2018 by Lee Watson, has a Training Academy where aspiring and current cybersecurity professionals can gain or improve skills.

First Orion, purveyor of the PrivacyStar app that aims to identify smartphone callers and block unwanted calls, offers apprenticeship programs. The company uses these to develop the talent that executives say it needs but had difficulty finding in central Arkansas.

‘Skills Gap’

There are 1,400-plus cybersecurity job openings in Arkansas, and about 467,000 nationwide, Watson told Arkansas Business. That national number is projected to reach more than 3 million in the next couple of years, he said.

“And so that’s an incredible skills gap. COVID and all the political stuff with foreign interference and all that, that’s created a more active environment with the adversaries, which is sort of leading to this need to make robust our cyber defenses for companies and governments,” he said.

The Forge Institute’s Training Academy offers several courses to address that gap. They are taught by subject matter experts with industry experience. Although the nonprofit has received some grant funding, it relies on a tuition-based model, Watson said.

The academy’s courses include a seven-week IT/cyber fundamentals class for people with little to no technical skills.

For people who have some kind of technical background, there is a 14-week course called the Cyber Training Bootcamp. Watson said that one takes information technology professionals and turns them into cybersecurity pros.

“Industry is just eating this up because we are selling out all the seats every time we offer the class. So this is helping industry upskill/reskill their employees or hire a new employee and then send them through this so they’re workforce-ready,” he said. “And then, of course, for the individual, it puts some on a pathway to increase their salary and get promotions and do all that kind of stuff.”

For current cybersecurity professionals, the academy offers one-, two- and four-day professional development classes. The Forge Institute began to offer data science training this year, and will continue to expand its offerings next year, Watson said. So far, more than 500 people have completed the academy’s courses, he said.

“You can kind of think of us as an accelerator of people,” Watson said. “I think what makes us unique is we have a lot of momentum because we are working to not just train people but make them workforce-ready for industry. So they can actually get in the job and do things. And we’re building an ecosystem of partnerships.”

Partners include the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the Rural Community Alliance and the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences. The Forge Institute is a feeder for the apprenticeships offered by the ACDS, which has also helped offset the costs of and provided guidance to First Orion’s apprenticeship programs.

‘A Great Advantage’

First Orion employs 345 people. It added 145 this year and had about 38 openings, Chief People Officer Libbi Whitehurst said last week.

First Orion’s inaugural apprenticeship program began in June 2018. Its apprentices are paid like full-time workers, and they receive benefits while going through the programs.

So far, the company has seen 38 people complete 13 different apprenticeship programs, Whitehurst said. She said most of the funding for those programs has come from First Orion.

Currently, the firm has nine iOS and Android apprentices and five product analyst apprentices who have not yet graduated. Another 19 are signed up for a software engineering program that begins in January, and six are signed up for an application support program that begins in February.

First Orion’s apprenticeship programs run anywhere from eight to 12 weeks, depending on the curriculum, Whitehurst said.

“So far, we’ve got a great track record. They then come out of that full fledged and ready to hit the ground running,” she said. “So I think that’s been a great advantage for us in helping shore up new talent coming in.”