Silver Linings in Growth of State’s Tech Workforce
Pace has been slow, but Nebraska is making progress.
Written by Dan Crisler, World Herald Staff Writer
In 2019, business leaders across Nebraska set and ambitious goal: Grow the state's technology sector by adding 10,000 employees by 2025.
Halfway through that timeframe, they're about 13% of the way there. Nebraska went from 49,500 tech jobs in 2019 to 50,800 in 2021. Of course, there have been roadblocks along the way - the COVID-19 pandemic being chief among them. "The pandemic definitely just put a huge damper on everything and everyone. I feel like we're still trying to climb out of that," said Jona Van Deun, president of the Nebraska Tech Collaborative.
Though the pace of growth in tech jobs has been slow, the state does appear to be on track with meeting growth goals for tech companies. The state set a goal of adding 300 tech companies by 2025. Thus far, it has added 147, according to data presented last month at the Aksarben Foundation's stakeholders' meeting in La Vista.
The Foundation brings together business and community leaders with the goal of bolstering Nebraska's workforce and economy.
And the conversation on increasing the tech industry's presence within Nebraska is still humming - which Van Deun considers a success.
"Three years ago, we weren't talking about Nebraska's tech workforce," she said. "The tech industry really rose to the occasion."
The increase in tech employees is not limited to startups. Mutual of Omaha, for example, has added about 300 tech employees in that sector. Mike Lechtenberger, chief information officer at Mutual, said the Fortune 500 insurance and financial services company prefers to hire regionally in Nebraska and western Iowa, but there have been cases where the company went outside the region to secure talent.
Even among Mutual's employees who live in and around Omaha, the ability to work remotely or in a hybrid setting is a highly desired perk.
"The question comes up almost every time" during job interviews, Lechtenberger said.
For some areas in Nebraska, remote work has opened doors for people to live where they want without sacrificing career prospects.
Angie Stenger, executive director of Aksarben Foundation's Northeast Nebraska Growing Together workforce initiative, said places like Norfolk, which is where the initiative is based, have fostered such arrangements by, among other things, emphasizing a tech- and entrepreneurial-friendly ecosystem.
Growing Together has also partnered with Wayne State College to offer a scholarship program that provides internship opportunities at Norfolk area businesses. The program is available to students who major in computer science, business, or communications.
"These kids are learning amazing things. We don't want them to have to go to the big city. We want to be their home," Stenger said.
Average tech salaries in Omaha are slightly above $80,000 while Lincoln's average tech salaries fall just below that number, according to a graph presented to the Aksarben Foundation stakeholders last month. Lincoln saw slightly higher wage growth at about 3% while Omaha was more stagnant at just over 2%.
Compared with two dozen other metropolitan areas roughly similar in size, the average salaries and growth rate in Nebraska's two largest cities lag behind places such as Fayetteville, Arkansas, which Van Deun said leaped past many cities in offering higher average wages for tech employees and saw wage growth at nearly 4%.
"Compared to our peers... we are not where we need to be," Van Deun said.
Broadband access remains an issue in some rural areas. While various efforts are being made to increase access, it's not an issue that has a quick fix.
Some communities have gotten creative in bridging the gap. As an example, Stenger pointed to Invest Nebraska's plans to open a co-working space in Norfolk to provide high-speed internet to people who have otherwise limited or no broadband internet access.
While young people are a primary demographic to fill tech positions within Nebraska, some businesses including Mutual are also looking at experience in other fields.
Lechtenberger said one of Mutual of Omaha's job training programs includes a partnership with Metropolitan Community College where Mutual identifies current employees who have the aptitude and qualifications to be trained for a technological job within Mutual.
"They know our culture. They know our business so it's really a win-win to be able to find candidates like that and partner with MCC (to) make a pathway for them into an IT career at Mutual," he said.
Business leaders are also encouraged by long-term demographic trends, particularly among Latinos. Latinos are projected to increase their share of the state's population from the current levels of roughly 12% to around 38% by 2050.
"For Nebraska, that's our greatest advantage," said Sandra Reding, president of Aksarben Foundation, adding the Latinos population is "very young" and could eventually help buffer an aging trend in the state's workforce.
Van Deun echoed those sentiments, saying the projected rise in the Latino population is "something we really need to watch and lean into as it pertains to creating more opportunities for our students here in the state."
"That's the long game," she said. That long game is something that Nebraska government leaders have taken stock of in an attempt to foster a more tech friendly atmosphere in recent years.
This past legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill introduced by State Sens. Terrell McKinney of Omaha and Julie Slama of Dunbar that will require high school students to complete at least one computer science or technology course in order to graduate from high school beginning with the 2026-27 school year.
"It's important to make sure that we prepare our kids for a future after school," McKinney said. "If we don't emphasize the importance of tech, I feel as though students in Nebraska would get left behind."
Through the various initiatives, business and government leaders hope that the state one day gains a reputation as one of the nation's top tech environments where its smaller size could be considered an advantage.
"I would hope to see us at least in the top 25 places that people can go... to build a company," Van Deun said. "Because we are the size that we are, we have an incredible opportunity to connect people and connect them quickly."