High-tech Heartland

With all that Omaha and the State of Nebraska have to offer, one of the biggest concerns shared by business, organizations, and government is the continued struggle to retain and attract tech workers. Community leaders have addressed the issue at various levels for a number of years but found it difficult to gain traction. Last year the Aksarben Foundation, which is celebrating its 125th year of addressing Nebraska’s most pressing needs, joined the effort and launched the Nebraska Tech Collaborative—a joint effort among stakeholders to grow Nebraska’s tech workforce.

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Local companies such as Nelnet, CQuence Health, and Mutual of Omaha, raised the flag to bring awareness to the issue, and Aksarben Foundation stepped in to help formalize the initiative so that all parties could work from a shared plan using the same research and set of terms, while recognizing that “there’s no one set plan,” according to Foundation President Sandra Reding. “A lot of companies are competing for talent, but they’re willing to come together to find ways around the same obstacle. We want to continue to move everyone forward and make an impact.”

Several committees were created, and a summit was held to hear concerns from business leaders, educators and philanthropists. They quickly realized the need to bring in someone to lead the initiative and hired Jona Van Deun, a Nebraska native who had been working in Washington, D.C. and recently made the move back to Omaha. In her first 90 days with Aksarben’s Nebraska Tech Collaborative, Van Deun met with the committees, each of which has a specified focus: pre-k through 12th grade, higher education, internships, talent attraction, career change, veterans, and diversity and inclusion. She also organized a follow-up summit that gathered more than 200 people, including the Governor of Nebraska, to get input on the issue.

“There have been a lot of great people already working on amazing programs and projects, but they don’t have time to connect, so our role is to be an aggregator and validator for the tech industry,” Van Deun said. “My job is to put focus and strategy into how we develop and attract talent to Nebraska, allowing both business and educators to weigh in on this issue.” Much of that initial work involves meeting as many people as possible and connecting people, from education, private sector, government, and especially the start-up community, which needs mentors, talent, and funding.

Each of the committees has developed actionable and scaleable plans that are being put into action. The committee addressing career change has been advocating for those individuals who are underemployed and looking to switch industries. With an abundance of call centers throughout Nebraska, there has been exploration around transitioning customer support staff into higher-skill, higher-wage technology workers and what type of training this would entail.

“Technology is at the forefront of nearly every job in every industry,” Van Deun said. “We need to start thinking and being more strategic on the front-end and support educators as they best try to prepare students for the careers of tomorrow.” The higher education committee is looking at ways to encourage both high school and college students to incorporate computer science courses into their course work to better prepare them for jobs that don’t even exist yet. The University of Nebraska and the community college systems are each heavily invested in the initiative.

The internship committee is working with Millard Public Schools and Avenue Scholars Foundation on Intern Omaha, which seeks to pair high school students with businesses for paid internship opportunities and hands-on learning experiences. Talent attraction and retention is another large part of the initiative, and while each committee works to cover new ground and reach measurable progress in impacting this issue, each is also staying mindful of how to increase diversity and inclusion in what is the traditionally male-dominated field of technology. This step alone is thought to increase attraction and retention to the state. The Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and Lincoln Chamber of Commerce have also joined together to create OptIn, an effort to aggregate available jobs through one online portal.

Refining and executing the best strategies is no easy task, but Van Deun exudes nothing but excitement and enthusiasm for what lies ahead. “Everyone is working together to solve the same problem,” she said. “We all need tech talent to be successful, and when it is, we thrive as a community and as a state.” Nebraskans are known for being modest, but that’s one asset that has turned into a liability, according to Van Deun. “We’ve got a great story to tell, so we need to tell it more often and brag about it. With so many incredible companies and tech jobs right here, who wouldn’t want to come work right here in Nebraska?”

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