Newswise — The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has partnered with the Forge Institute and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff to establish the Consortium for Cyber Innovation (CCI) to meet the country’s growing need for skilled cybersecurity professionals.

The consortium will develop and align cyber education and grow applied research capabilities throughout the state. The consortium partners will collaborate on workforce development, research, and innovation to create a strategic industry cluster in emerging technologies that will support national defense and enhance Arkansas as a Cyber Defense State and cybersecurity hub.

“UA Little Rock is proud to join the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and the Forge Institute in an effort to scale and leverage resources towards workforce development, research, and innovation in cyber technologies,” UA Little Rock Chancellor Christina Drale said. “Together, we are building the future of our state as we pursue the common goal of ensuring national security through strategic and collaborative workforce development, research, and innovation.”

The Forge Institute develops capabilities to solve broad challenges in emerging technology, cybersecurity, and national security. Its experienced cyber operators and leadership team are leveraging their extensive national network to promote workforce training and research collaborations by joining forces with the academic resources at UA Little Rock and UAPB.

“The Consortium for Cyber Innovation is monumental to developing our high-tech workforce and developing new capabilities to prevent, detect, and mitigate emerging technology risks to businesses, including our nation’s critical infrastructure,” said Lee Watson, CEO of the Forge Institute. “Both campuses already have outstanding undergraduate and graduate computer science programs, cybersecurity resources, and world-class faculty. We’re excited to lend our expertise to this very important endeavor which will help fill the coming 3.4 million job gap.”

Cybercrime is a growing threat that is expected to cost the world more than $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, according to Watson. This increase in cyberattacks is expected to open 3.4 cybersecurity positions in the next few years. There are already 1,400 open positions in Arkansas, and more than 467,000 open positions in cybersecurity in the U.S., Watson said.

This collaboration expands an existing successful collaboration between UA Little Rock and Forge Institute. Students who complete the Forge Institute’s IT/Cyber Fundamentals professional development course can apply to receive three credit hours in UA Little Rock’s recently launched bachelor’s degree program in cybersecurity. This recognition of learning outside of higher education is a bold step towards how colleges and universities can modernize their curricula to meet the needs of today’s students and industry.

“We’re extremely excited to build this collaboration with Forge Institute,” said Dr. Brian Berry, vice provost for research and dean of the Graduate School at UA Little Rock. “We view cybersecurity as an important field of study for our students, and the expertise Forge Institute lends offers a real-world perspective that can’t be simulated in the classroom.”

The CCI builds on existing partnerships among the Forge Institute, UA Little Rock, and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville that have already resulted in National Security Agency (NSA)-funded academic training and research programs. This includes the GenCyber summer camp for 7-12 graders, the Healthcare Cybersecurity Certification research project, and a new graduate certificate in cybersecurity education.

Congressman French Hill said the creation of the CCI is a giant step in making Arkansas more competitive in cyber innovation, and that he is looking forward to following the consortium’s continued growth and success.

“The University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff have taken steps to create a nurturing environment to promote computer science and cyber innovation,” Congressman Hill said. “This collaboration will take their commitment one step further.”

Future research projects will include developing next-generation artificial intelligence capabilities to manage cybersecurity threats to both critical infrastructure and military and national defense networks. Advanced machine learning technologies will increase efficiency and expand near-term industry use of readily-available quantum computing capabilities.

The CCI also plans to create a Strategic Initiative Office that will allow the consortium to obtain and manage large-scale federal funding for creating a sustainable network of education and research efforts in emerging technology and national defense.

“As our state’s land grant, Historically Black University, UAPB looks to contribute to the CCI’s strategic initiatives in a number of ways,” UAPB Chancellor Laurence Alexander said. “Our expectation is that our university’s priorities of expanding computer education and the cyber workforce will lead to a more diverse industry workforce, reaching many of our underrepresented population. As such, the consortium will help build regional capacity to support economic growth and development across various industry sectors as the state recovers from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Industry partners who join the CCI can help in a number of ways, Watson said. They can hire new talent, especially Arkansas graduates, mentor students, bring in interns, help fund student research, and advise educators who are developing classes.

David McCoy, principal security analyst, incident response commander, and head of forensics and investigation at Acxiom, a data management, data science, and privacy technology company, represented Acxiom as a founding industry partner.

“I’m extremely honored to represent Acxiom in this effort to join these different entities together,” McCoy said. “The industry has been growing, to say the least, and to the point where you need formal tracks to get into what I do. We are getting into more formal education programs, which is going to be amazing, not only to the state of Arkansas but to the United States. Acxiom is super excited to join into this collaboration across industry’s public and private sectors sharing information, which is something we all need to do because the threats are real.”

Globally, cybersecurity has become a trillion dollar industry with career opportunities open to thousands of Arkansans. Because of the state’s deep experience with data management, logistics, fintech, and other data-driven industries, Arkansas is well positioned to become a rallying point for the nation’s cybersecurity efforts. These opportunities produce good paying jobs for Arkansans.

“UA Little Rock is committed to growing a talented workforce of highly skilled cyber professionals in Central Arkansas,” Drale said. “Directly related to that effort is the applied research of our nationally recognized faculty in cybersecurity, including research on social media threats by our Collaboratorium for Social Media and Online Behavioral Studies. This collaboration sets the stage for additional partnerships and initiatives, and that will establish Arkansas as a national leader in cybersecurity and related emerging technologies.”