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Arkansas Center for Data Sciences Focuses on Jobs, Competition

4 min read

The mission of the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences is twofold: to narrow the gap between open technology jobs in the state and the talent available to fill them, and to help existing businesses use data analytics to better compete.

The center, launched in December, is an independent nonprofit and public-private partnership.

It was born out of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s 2017 Blue Ribbon Commission to Report on the Economic Competitiveness of Computing & Data Analytics in Arkansas.

The commission was co-chaired by Mike Preston, executive director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, and former Acxiom Corp. CEO Charles Morgan.

“Right now in Arkansas we have a problem,” Morgan, CEO of First Orion Corp. in Little Rock, said in a statement to Arkansas Business.

“Technology cuts across all industries today, and we’re not producing enough qualified tech workers to fill the growing demand of our state’s businesses. Even Walmart is having trouble acquiring enough talent, so imagine the challenge for all our small startups. I can tell you from experience: it’s a problem that never ends.”

He and Preston now co-chair the center’s board of directors, which includes Clay Johnson, enterprise chief information officer for Walmart; Scott Spradley, chief technology officer at Tyson Foods Inc.; and Warren Stephens, chairman, president and CEO of Stephens Inc.

Also involved is Acxiom (now LiveRamp) alum Bill Yoder, the center’s executive director.

“The capacity and the capability gap in terms of corporate demand and our homegrown [talent] supply is significant,” as there are about 5,000 unfilled tech jobs across the state right now, Yoder said in a recent interview.

The center is working on that with an annual budget of about $1 million; it is funded by the state and corporate sponsors. The nonprofit’s goal is to be financially self-sustaining in three to five years, and Yoder expects the annual budget to be more than $3 million by its fifth year.

The center has six employees now, but he said a team that will accomplish the second part of its mission could grow to 15 or 20 over the next few years. That team will “educate corporate Arkansas on the power and the capability of data analytics,” Yoder said. It will add to research capacity at Arkansas colleges and help companies that don’t have data analysis capabilities as well.

On the jobs front, Yoder said the openings are “across all IT [information technology] occupations,” but the most talked about are data technicians, data analysts and cybersecurity analysts.

The center’s priority is short-term initiatives that will have an immediate impact, such as a cybersecurity apprenticeship program on which it’s partnering with American Cyber Alliance of Little Rock, Yoder said.

At the same time, the center will be working on longer-term initiatives to increase the state’s talent supply, including incentives for tech workers who move to Arkansas and enhancements to two-year and four-year college programs across the state.

Yoder said the center is encouraging “corporate subject matter experts” to explain to the academics what they need from graduates. The center is also planning to host a workshop for educators this fall.

Arkansas also needs its K-12 students to consider and develop a passion for the tech professions, Yoder said, so the center will be looking into connecting with parents as well as the students on that front.

Why? Because, between now and 2030, those jobs will “probably average somewhere around $90,000 a year,” he said.

“I think the metric that probably is going to be a definition of success is the number of IT, computer science and data science jobs that we fill in the state of Arkansas or help fill in the state of Arkansas,” Yoder said. The center’s goal is to fill 50,000 IT-related jobs in Arkansas between 2020 and 2030.

Preston, board co-chairman, is optimistic about the nonprofit making the state a leader in closing the jobs and talent gap. “We can either lead or we can keep playing catch-up,” he said in an emailed statement. “To me, for so long, we haven’t done a good job of getting out of our own way. We’ve kind of always been like, ‘We’re never going to be able to compete with the Texases or the Tennessees of the world. We’ll take the crumbs that are left.’ But there’s no reason Arkansas can’t compete for the main dish as opposed to the crumbs.”

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