Finding the right tech talent is hard no matter where you are. Finding it along Interstate 20 in northern Louisiana has been particularly challenging.

Historically there have been few prominent employers to attract and anchor a consistent workforce along this mostly rural stretch that runs west through the small cities of Monroe, Ruston and Shreveport — and many hills in between.

But state agencies and leaders in private industry are working together to turn what locals call the I-20 corridor into a prominent, self-sustaining tech ecosystem for capable professionals and internationally relevant innovation.

One of the first major public-private collaborations started in 2007 with the creation of the National Cyber Research Park and the Cyber Innovation Center in Bossier City, which hugs the Red River across from Shreveport.

The center has worked aggressively to bring more tech employers to the region, including IBM, the Computer Sciences Corporation and CSRA, a tech services provider for government.

Speaking at a cybersecurity summit convened in Louisiana by CenturyLink on March 8, Craig Spohn, the center’s executive director and president, explained why the region has lagged, despite CenturyLink’s headquarters being rooted along I-20 in Monroe.

“A single-employer community limits the attraction because people have nowhere to go other than that one organization,” he told tech leaders in a CenturyLink auditorium.

Bill Bradley, senior vice president of cyber engineering and technology services at CenturyLink, welcomed the region’s new entrants and the thousands of jobs they have added.

The workers who have filled them are “bringing up children who will stay in the area they grew up in,” he said. “Those things have positive benefits for our state.”

Creative Hiring And Training

CSRA decided in 2013 to move security operations some 1,200 miles to Bossier City from Arlington, Virginia. The trek came with a commitment to create 800 new jobs.

Wayne Maddock, a security operations manager at the company’s Integrated Technology Center in Bossier City, told tech leaders at the summit that he was skeptical at first.

“Only a small minority of the team moved with me. I was waking up at 3 a.m. thinking about the cyber skills gap,” he said at the summit.

Unlike personnel managers in larger IT markets who can draw from a deeper talent base, Maddock knew he would have to get creative. He started by heavily recruiting northern Louisiana natives who had moved away for other opportunities. Today, 20 percent of his staff at the center are what he calls “boomerangs.”

The rest come from all walks of life. Some were hired directly out of college for positions that might have required up to 10 years of experience in the Washington, D.C. area. Others were hired with little or no formal IT training — Maddock saw promise in prospects with open minds and relevant skills.

“You need people very skilled in reverse engineering and in understanding the workings of the human mind,” he said. “We’ve successfully hired people who were paralegals or worked in the energy industry. What matters is being hungry and wanting to get involved in cybersecurity.”

The IBM Application Development and Innovation Center in Monroe had a similar experience.

“Some of our best hires have English or history degrees,” said John Wheeler, vice president of services strategy at IBM Security. “They have a natural desire to learn and share, and were looking for a fresh start.”

Reforming Tech Education

A four-year cyber engineering program at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, the first of its kind in the nation, buttresses a cybersecurity industry that has a strong presence in the state. The university is changing instructional models to be more relevant and engaging by organizing hack-a-thons, bringing in working professionals as instructors and holding a hacking competition in lieu of a traditional final exam.

The state has played a key role in changing the way primary and secondary students learn about emerging tech by creating the Cyber Discovery Camp, an intensive program pioneered at Louisiana Tech. Since it began in 2008, the camp has spread to more than 20 states.

Cybersecurity firms in the Louisiana area are providing tuition assistance and on-site courses to employees. CSRA developed an on-site master’s program.

But all this investment in education adds up. The state is investing more than $24 million in the IBM center. About $4.5 million of that investment is earmarked to expand technology degree programs at Louisiana Tech, the University of Louisiana at Monroe and Grambling State University.

Even with heavy investment in cultivating and retaining local talent, there is still work to be done along the I-20 corridor. Spohn said there are 3,000 unfilled tech jobs in Monroe and the Shreveport-Bossier region alone.

“Until recently we did not have enough in-state demand for STEM graduates,” he said. “But only from our community will we be able to find a sustainable workforce.”