Arkansas Ahead of Curve in Developing Cybersecurity Talent


Arkansas is pooling programs and talent to meet a crush of jobs in the emerging field of cybersecurity, and positioning itself as a hub for training cybersecurity professionals.

That’s the conclusion of local educators and nonprofit leaders who spoke with Arkansas Business on what the industry calls its “talent gap.”

A cybersecurity talent pool would be an economic opportunity, fueling high-paying jobs for Arkansans, helping to mitigate the devastating costs of cybercrime, and putting the state on the shortlist for future security response and secure operation centers.

The rapid rise of cyberthreats and new technologies needing protection have transformed the security landscape.

“The demand is going to outstrip our ability to be able to produce talent at all levels,” said Albert Baker, chair of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Department of Computer Science. “So, even with all of us working together, we are going to have trouble meeting demand. However, we are going to be much better at meeting the demand by collaborating and working together than if we were all trying to do this independently.”

Lee Watson agreed. He’s CEO and founder of the nonprofit Forge Institute in Little Rock, which offers cybersecurity workforce training programs. “We’re part of that solution, but quite frankly the appetite for capable cyber talent is insatiable,” he said. “The rate of change is so fast, I’m not sure we can ever ‘close the gap,’ but we’re making incredible strides right now to meet the growing demand for IT and cyber professionals.”

As of last week, there were 1,900 open cybersecurity positions in Arkansas alone, Watson said. The Arkansas Center for Data Sciences couldn’t offer state-specific employment growth projections, but Arkansas is seen as in line with national trends. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 33% growth in the employment of information security analysts nationwide from 2020 to 2030.

“If we forecast based on the increase of cyberattacks in 2021, current geopolitical events and advancements with [Internet of Technologies] and other emerging technologies,” the number of cybersecurity positions across the state will “skyrocket” over the next several years, Watson said.

He describes cybersecurity as a “long-term economic opportunity for the state” because the jobs pay well. Median annual pay was $103,590 in 2020. That’s more than double the state’s median household income for 2015-19, which was $47,597, according to federal statistics.

Cybercrime is increasing, and it’s costly. The FBI reported a 69% year-over-year increase in cybercrime complaints for 2020 and losses that totaled $4.2 billion, though that figure is for both businesses and individuals.

Philip Huff, assistant professor of cybersecurity at UA Little Rock, said developing the talent pool could also put the state on the “shortlist” for certain cybersecurity-related projects.

‘Arkansas Taking the Lead’

Baker said he’s been “blown away” by the level of collaboration among the governor, legislators, colleges and others on computer science education at every level.

His UA Little Rock colleague, Huff, agreed, saying he had talked with programs around the country. “Arkansas really is taking the lead,” he said. Other places “just don’t have the state support for developing cybersecurity professionals.”

Watson, with the Forge Institute, believes the state will establish its reputation as a leader in information security by the end of the decade and that cybersecurity will be recognized as an essential component of its economy.

Baker added that more resources are needed, including funding, and Arkansas must talk up its efforts to establish itself as a cybersecurity leader.

Watson said all hands on deck will be required, with these piorities in mind:

  • Public schools must provide a basic-level cyber curriculum for students K-12.
  • Higher education institutions must provide career pathways.
  • Professional development must be available to people in the private and public sectors. On-the-job learning and mentorship must also be offered.

Those goals are in motion, along with programs that have generated great interest from students, job seekers and employers. For its part, the Forge Institute has partnered with the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services to provide free training to unemployed or underemployed Arkansans. It also has partnered with the Rural Community Alliance and the Delta Regional Authority to train 25 residents of Searcy, St. Francis, Chicot, Ashley and Phillips counties.

The nonprofit has a fellowship program that aims to offer employers access to a pool of 50 cyber defense specialists (26 had been selected as of last week). Another of its training programs, SkillBridge, is for military members transitioning out of service.

Meanwhile, UA Little Rock is offering free graduate certificates in cybersecurity education to 90 high school teachers this summer as part of a national program. The certificates will enable them to teach college credit-bearing courses in their schools.

At least 60 of those will be Arkansas teachers, thanks to an $800,000 grant recently awarded by the Arkansas Department of Education. The National Security Agency is providing another $750,000 grant for the remaining 30 teachers, who could come from anywhere in the country.

UA Little Rock is also one of a few universities in the state offering a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. Of the 44 students taking its introductory cybersecurity courses, more than half have declared that as their major, Baker said.

UA Little Rock is a member of two consortiums. One, which includes five community colleges, UA-Pulaski Tech and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, is developing cybersecurity certificate programs. The other is the Consortium for Cyber Innovation, which includes UAPB and the Forge Institute. It aims to develop cyber education and grow research capabilities in Arkansas.

The Arkansas Center for Data Sciences’ apprenticeship programs cover on-the-job learning and mentorship.

ACDS Director of Apprenticeship Lonnie Emard said Forge Institute training feeds into those programs, which have produced about 40 cybersecurity apprentices since their inception in December 2019.

“We happen to believe that apprenticeship is the way that employers feel more confident that they can hire somebody with less than what they might have, you know, thought they needed. … We can teach tech, right? We can train those missing pieces if they have passion and aptitude,” Emard said.