Blue Ribbon panel recommends formation of $25 million data analytics nonprofit to boost tech-jobs, grow economy

by Wesley Brown (wesbrocomm@gmail.com) 498 views 

Gov. Asa. Hutchison (center) releases findings of the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report on state’s competitiveness in computing and data analytics field. Arkansas Economic Development Commission Chief Mike Preston (R) and former Acxiom Corp. and First Orion CEO Charles Morgan, co-chairmen of the panel, stand at his side with interpreter and other industry and government leaders at the Governor’s Conference Room at the State Capitol.

A Blue Ribbon panel convened by Gov. Asa Hutchinson earlier this year is recommending the state launch of a $25 million, five-year economic development nonprofit to address business challenges in computing and data analytics, and finding better ways to recruit and retain talent to fill technology-related jobs.

Hutchinson, along with former Acxiom Chairman and CEO Charles Morgan and Arkansas Economic Development Director Mike Preston on Thursday (Dec. 21) released the findings of the 24-page “Report on the Economic Competitiveness of Computing and Data Analytics in Arkansas” as part of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission impaneled in March.

During a press conference at the Governor’s Conference Room at the State Capitol, Hutchinson thanked commission co-chairmen Morgan and Preston for bringing together the public-private partnership that drew from senior level executives from many of the state’ top corporations, including Walmart, J.B. Hunt Transport, Murphy Corp. and Stephens Inc.

“They put together a stellar list of entrepreneurs and CEOs across the state from all leading industries to look at data analytics in our future,” Hutchinson said. “And to put this in perspective, we’ve all looked toward the future of having our share of tech jobs in Arkansas.”

Hutchinson, who has brought national attention to Arkansas for his computer coding education initiative, added that for the state to acquire technology companies of the future, Arkansas needs a workforce that understands computer science, cyber security training and data analytics.

“This is important to every industry in this state, whether it is manufacturing, retail, agriculture, medical and on and on down the line,” he said.

After Hutchinson spoke, Morgan said computing and data analytics is important to the future of every single company in Arkansas. During his tenure at Acxiom over nearly 35 years, Morgan built the Little Rock-based, publicly traded firm into the one of world’s leaders in the field of gathering, analyzing, marketing and managing customer and business information.

As CEO of First Orion Corp., a privately-held company that provides privacy management software for phones, Morgan said ultimately how the state addresses this growing sector of the economy will impact the state’s competitiveness going forward.

“Every job today in computing has some component of analytics, so all these things, as the governor said, goes hand in hand,” he said.

Preston said the unprecedented work by the private-public partnership will Arkansas to take national leadership in the data analytics arena, noting that AEDC researched but could not find similar state-level initiatives across the U.S.

He said momentum from the administration’s much-publicized computer coding initiative at the center of the governor’s economic development and education plan, along with the Blue Ribbon panel findings, can boost the state’s efforts in the technology sector through education, workforce and public-private industry initiatives.

“We can either lead or we can catch up. And I think what you will see in this report is that we have an opportunity to lead,” Preston said. “And this is not just about the industry itself in IT and technology, but this is about all the industries that we continue to recruit, from manufacturing and defense to homeland security and everything that falls underneath those buckets.”

Citing a recent “Wired” magazine report, Preston noted that more than 1.8 million new technology-oriented jobs will be created in the U.S. between 2014 and 2024. Most of those jobs will require some data or computer science credentials, he said.

“The big problem that we are only graduating only 28,000 students per year nationally,” Preston said, adding later his staff was unable to confirm the number of Arkansas students who graduate with similar degrees. “Arkansas is poised to become a leader in this nationally. What this report does is charts a path forward …”

In handing over the report to Hutchinson after nearly six months of work and review, Morgan and Preston said the panel has determined a public-private partnership is critical for advancing data analytics and computing and positioning Arkansas as a global leader in the industry. Already, the nonprofit Arkansas Partnership for Data Analytics and Computing will be a non-profit organization governed by industry leaders with representation from state government and higher education, limited to approximately 10 members to oversee the implementation of the action plan.

“The result of all this effort … is that we believe that there a lot of things that the state can do to influence outcome in these area,” Morgan told Hutchinson. “In other words, the biggest thing we can do is get people prepared for these kinds of jobs, and that’s starting with the governor’s (computer coding) efforts from K-12 through higher education so that these young people are prepared for the jobs ahead.”

Morgan said from his own experience, Arkansas’ education system has “missed the marked” for attracting, retaining and filling jobs in the technology sector. Last month, First Orion recently announced it will move its local headquarters from downtown Little Rock to North Little Rock’s Argenta district, with plans to fill more than 100 tech-oriented jobs.

Morgan said First Orion is still recruiting for those jobs, which will include between 40 or 50 positions for degreed professions with specific computing and data analytics skills. The gregarious tech CEO said later that those positions on average pay annual salaries of $85,000 or more, but added many can also receive much higher pay in Silicon Valley, Austin and other tech-focused cities on the East and West Coast.

“When I look at the number of graduates in [Arkansas] that can do exactly what we need, it’s a handful,” he said.

The key recommendation from the governor’s Blue Ribbon panel will require dedicated resources to hire a “lean staff” to oversee the initiative, officials said. Morgan and Preston estimated $25 million from state government and private entities over a five-year period will be required to staff the initiative and launch its near-term program efforts as a key technology-based economic development initiative of the state.

In response to questions from reporters, Hutchinson said he will take the Commission’s recommendations to the legislature to fund a portion of initiative. Morgan added that the panel also has garnered some support for funding from the private sector, but did not divulge those commitments.

Other highlights and strategic priorities from the Blue Ribbon Commission over the next five years through the Arkansas Partnership for Data Analytics and Computing include:

  • Addressing the challenges of recruiting top talent actively involved in data analytics and computing;
  • Raising industry awareness and understanding; and
  • Developing, engaging and retaining homegrown top talent in data analytics and computing.

The Commission’s recommendations also included specific ways to:

  • Advance increased networking and executive education for Arkansas companies to better integrate data analytics into their businesses;
  • Reinforce data analytics skills development across Arkansas’ universities and connecting students with businesses;
  • Target data analytics and computing talent retention, attraction, and retraining to ensure Arkansas can meet existing and new company demand for data analytics talent; and
  • Raise Arkansas’s technical capabilities through a Data Analytics Strategic Improvement Plan.

To view the Blue Ribbon Commission report, click here.

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