Ignite Nebraska program trains people from disadvantaged backgrounds
It started off as a 3 a.m. idea.
That’s how Joni Wheeler describes the creation of Ignite Nebraska.
Launched in February in Omaha, the workforce development apprenticeship program is the culmination of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska executives’ desire to solve a multifaceted problem: a shortage of technology employees. Their solution: give economically disadvantaged people of color the training needed for those middle-class careers.
“If you give someone a meaningful job, you give them hope. You give them pride. You give them purpose. And you give them power to lift up their family,” said Joni Wheeler, executive vice president of talent and enterprise solutions at Blue Cross.
The training comes at no cost to the students. Blue Cross has partnered with Bellevue University for the university to develop and carry out the training curriculum. Blue Cross also works with other community agencies to help Ignite students overcome issues such as transportation challenges.
“It’s been one of the most collaborative and innovative approaches to really working with a corporation to develop curriculum that allows them to actually hire the students right away knowing that they both had the trial by fire in the university and trial by fire in the workplace and succeeded on both ends,” she said.
As the students acquired more skills over time, their wages and hours also increased. At the end of the apprenticeship, Blue Cross offered them positions that pay between $50,000 and $60,000 per year. All four students accepted.
Rama Kolli, the organization’s chief information officer, said the employees are meeting, and in some cases exceeding, expectations. He added that the employees are skilled at creating data and presenting it through easy-to-understand visuals such as graphs.
“They can get creative in telling a story,” he said, “so it naturally fits into the day-to-day skills of any person.”
Blue Cross also plans to partner with five to seven more companies next year. The companies could sponsor cohorts that could collectively enroll as many as 30 people in the Ignite Nebraska program by next March.
“We have untapped talent across the community,” Wheeler said.