UA Little Rock awarded $1.96 million workforce development grant to boost cyberskills

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 337 views 

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has received a $1.96 million workforce development grant to fund further development of the Cyber Learning Network (CyberLearN) – a regional cyber-learning partnership with six other schools in the University of Arkansas System to address Arkansas’ talent gap in cybersecurity.

The CyberLearN partners include UA Little Rock, UA Pine Bluff, UA – Pulaski Technical College, UA Cossatot, UA Hope-Texarkana, UACC Batesville, and UACC Morrilton. The Forge Institute, the Arkansas Center for Data Sciences, and SmartResume are also collaborating on the initiative.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson awarded a total of $7.9 million in large-scale workforce development grants to UA Little Rock and eight other organizations during a March 15 press conference at the Jonesboro Chamber of Commerce. The grants were funded by the Arkansas Office of Skills Development, a division of the Arkansas Department of Commerce.

“We don’t have an unlimited source of funds in Arkansas for workforce training, so we want to invest it wisely,” Gov. Hutchinson said. “And you do that by partnering with industry to guide our training, our funding, so that it results in jobs.”

CyberLearN leverages shared resources for the purposes of expanding and diversifying cyber workforce education in Arkansas. The consortium will provide more equitable access to cybersecurity education for Arkansas learners, aligning freshman and sophomore cybersecurity curriculum with ABET, a national accreditation board, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Standards. CyberLearN partners will share instruction and create a common learning experience through standardized, hybrid-flexible learning spaces that will utilize the cloud-based UA Little Rock Cyber Arena.

“UA Little Rock is proud to lead in creating the Cyber Learning Network, which will put Arkansas on the map for cybersecurity workforce education,” said Dr. Erin Finzer, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. “This new consortium among academic and nonprofit partners will serve as a model to provide collaborative education and training opportunities across the state. We thank Gov. Hutchinson and the Office of Skills Development for this investment in Arkansas’ economic security and for providing our state with cyber talent for many years to come.”

Arkansas currently has more than 3,000 unfilled cybersecurity positions listed on LinkedIn, and that number is expected to continue to grow. Now that Arkansas’ broadband initiatives have provided more internet access across the state, there are more opportunities for cybersecurity professionals to work remotely, which can provide a boost for rural communities.

In order to support this economic and workforce development potential, UA Little Rock and its academic partners are providing stackable certificates, which are a set of professional credentials that can be stacked into more advanced certificate and degree programs or may be earned by Arkansas workers wishing to upskill or reskill. Stackable certificates are an innovative way for institutions of higher education to serve working students by providing them with distinct skill sets and manageable motivators on their way to a two-year or four-year degree.

“COVID has changed a lot of how we operate in higher education, and this program shows a positive adaptation in meeting the needs of today’s learners,” said Dr. Philip Huff, assistant professor of cybersecurity at UA Little Rock. “The workforce needed in cybersecurity is so great right now, and we can’t simply tell the industry to wait four more years for us to provide you with a pipeline of talent when they need it yesterday. These stackable certificates address the immediate need, and also open up new academic paths if a student chooses to continue their education.”

While UA System campuses will provide space and construction and renovation costs for the training operation centers, the grant will provide computer equipment and supplies, UA Little Rock Cyber Arena cloud access for all students, curriculum and instructional design, and tuition and fees for 100 new learners. An additional eight more scholarships will go to instructors from two-year colleges to earn UA Little Rock’s new graduate certificate in cybersecurity education in an effort to expand the cybersecurity teacher workforce in the state.