University of Arkansas 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 (including UA Cossatot) to address Arkansas’s talent gap in cybersecurity.

The CyberLearN partners include UA Cossatot, UA Little Rock, UA Pine Bluff, UA – Pulaski Technical College, 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.

Governor Asa Hutchinson awarded a total of $7.9 million in Large-Scale Workforce Development Grants to UALR’s CyberLearn Network 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,” Governor 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.

“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’s economic security and for providing our state with cyber talent for many years to come.”

CyberLearN will drive economic development opportunities by providing robust talent pathways and creating opportunities to spur creative innovations. 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’s 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.

Dr. Steve Cole, chancellor of UA Cossatot, said one of his biggest worries is how to combat the cyber-attacks that are happening all around the world. This new partnership with CyberLearN will bring education and training opportunities directly to UA Cossatot and other two-year colleges across the state. Having a skilled workforce that can respond to cyber threats will ensure a resilient economy in Arkansas.

“Cybercrime just doesn’t touch large corporations, it even touches the small business owner with one employee,” Cole said. “To combat cybercrime, we must build a workforce of cybersecurity experts, and CyberLearN seeks to address this huge skills gap. Community colleges like ours find it extremely difficult sometimes to start new, technology-rich programs due to the high costs involved and the lack of available instruction, but a collaborative effort like CyberLearN allows us to tap into the talent at UA Little Rock and the Forge Institute to offer cybersecurity programming in our rural area. I am confident that, without this effort it would be difficult to offer a world-class program like this to many rural parts of the state like ours.”

The workforce development grant builds on ​the commitment and spirit of last year’s UA System announcement of a $900,000 CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) to boost the state’s ​statewide workforce recovery from the economic impact of COVID-19 ​growth through the creation of the UA System Workforce Response and Training Center. That grant included nine UA System institutions, led by the Arkansas Economic Development Institute (AEDI) at UA Little Rock, to collect and analyze statewide workforce data and use outcomes to provide existing and bolstered education and training efforts through all seven of the UA System’s two-year colleges, along with two colleges of technology at the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM).

“This is a shining example of the synergy that’s possible by harnessing UA System resources in a collaborative and innovative fashion to continue bolstering the ​growth of a world-class, highly skilled workforce in Arkansas,” said Chris Thomason, vice president for planning and development for the UA System. “When we’re able to pool the resources and talent within the UA System ​close to Arkansas citizens and in our communities, the momentum that’s created can have a much larger impact on the state’s economic growth and within Arkansas families.”

In order to support this economic and workforce development potential, UALR, UA Cossatot and the other academic partners in the CyberLearn Network 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.”

The certificate programs, the first of which is pending approval for the Fall 2022 semester, include two certificates of proficiency in cybersecurity fundamentals that “stack” into a technical certificate and associate degree. By completing these foundational certificates, learners will be ready to enroll in upper-level specialized certificates in areas like data security, digital forensics, cybersecurity operations, and software security. These certificates are designed to provide college students and workers with a road to lifelong learning with personalized pathways to learn skills that meet both learner and employer needs.

“Higher education should seize every viable opportunity to increase efficiency in the delivery of educational services contributing to workforce education. CyberLearN is exactly this kind of opportunity,” Dr. Albert Baker, chair of the Department of Computer Science at UA Little Rock. “It has been, and continues to be, energizing to collaborate on this opportunity to build efficiencies in the development of the Arkansas workforce in the emerging and evermore critically important cybersecurity industry.”