Consortium Aims to Make Arkansas a Leader in Cybersecurity

Consortium Aims to Make Arkansas a Leader in Cybersecurity
Lee Watson, founder of the Forge Institute. The institute is part of a new consortium that aims to make the state a national leader in cybersecurity. (Jason Burt)

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the Forge Institute of Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff on Wednesday announced a new consortium that aims to make the state a national leader in cybersecurity.

The Consortium for Cyber Innovation will bring industry, academic, nonprofit, government and even military partners together to collaborate on workforce development, research, and innovation. Their goals are to create “a strategic regional industry cluster in emerging technologies,” accelerate the development of the state’s cybersecurity workforce and aid the creation of more high-paying tech jobs in Arkansas. 

Also envisioned is a cyber talent pipeline from pre-kindergarten through graduate level students at higher education institutions and adding consistency to cybersecurity curriculums, which vary widely. 

The universities already have undergraduate and graduate computer science programs, while the Forge Institute is a nonprofit that offers training for current and prospective cybersecurity professionals.

Acxiom of Conway, a data management, data science and privacy technology firm, was one of the industry partners represented Wednesday at the announcement at UA Little Rock Downtown in Little Rock.

Forge Institute CEO Lee Watson said industry analysts are showing that cybercrime is expected to cost the world over $10 trillion annually by 2025 and cyberattacks have increased by 600% since the pandemic began. Both figures have been reported by national media outlets earlier this year.

Watson said cybercrime not only brings risks for companies, which are being attacked, but also economic opportunities for Arkansas. He said there are 1,400-plus open cybersecurity jobs across the state, and 467,000 across the U.S. Both figures are expected to grow fast over the next few years, and these jobs also pay $40,000 to more than $100,000 a year, he said.

He called the consortium a “first of its kind” effort to seize these opportunities.

Lee also said, in response to an audience member’s question, that companies can participate in and benefit from the consortium in many ways. They can hire new talent, take on apprentices and interns, mentor students, help fund and access undergraduate research, and inform educators as they develop curriculum.

Their engagement could also make their applications for government and military contracts more attractive, Watson said.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Arkansas, also spoke at the event. He said, “I think Arkansas is in a great position to play a major role as we go forward regarding this” and invited the consortium to let him know what the state’s congressional delegation can do to help. 

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Arkansas, did not attend but provided a statement supporting the formation of the consortium.

UA Little Rock Chancellor Christina Drale touted the school’s newly launched bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity, graduate certificate in cybersecurity education offered through the National Cybersecurity Teaching Academy, other programs its Cyber Arena is offering and its existing partnership with the Forge Institute to give college credit to graduates of one of its courses.

She said being part of the consortium will further the university’s existing commitment to such efforts, including its efforts to increase non-traditional pathways into higher education.

Lee said, “I think it's important to note we're not talking about what we're going to go do. We're already doing these things. We're building more partnership and more collaboration, which will have more impact ... It takes industry partners who are not just verbally committed, but participating in these initiatives, to make it work.”

He introduced David McCoy with Acxiom, who said he’s excited to see more formal education for people wanting to have a career like his – formal education that wasn’t available when his career began.

More On This Story