Education Attainment Division
Creating an Information Systems and Technology Education Pipeline
The Greater Omaha Chamber is committed to implementing cradle-to-career strategies that strengthen the talent development pipeline for the region’s highest-need industry sectors. Working with key partners from K-12 and higher education institutions, and their Workforce Investment Board, the Chamber is identifying opportunities to build strong curriculum and programs that support their IT sector, and promote available IT-related education and career opportunities.
Interview Participants: Sarah Moylan, Director, Talent and Workforce
Q: Can you provide some background on how your community began to focus on education attainment and workforce development?
A: The story begins about 5 years ago when the Greater Omaha Chamber received a grant from National Fund for Workforce Solutions. During that time, the state controlled the Workforce Investment Board (WIB), and a lot of decisions weren’t being made from a local perspective. We really wanted to get back to a place where we were directly dealing with the challenges and opportunities that existed in the community. Support from the National Fund enabled us to leverage technical expertise, build capacity within our staff and community partners, and learn from best practices and models other states had utilized in working with their WIBs. Over the next few years, the Chamber worked directly with community partners to create a new non-profit organization outside of the Chamber called Heartland Workforce Solutions. Because of the structure and sustainable system plan put in place through this organization, it eventually regained control of the WIB from the state. From there, we built the American Job Center, a new workforce center serving the region under the banner of Heartland Workforce Solutions. The center houses 15 workforce system partner organizations that provide training and education services. Having these partners and agencies under one roof really streamlines efforts and improves collaboration and communication.
Q: Today, what would you say that your chamber’s most important role is within this body of work?
A: Our main focus is to grow the economy in the Greater Omaha region to help bring prosperity to the people living in our area. To do this strategically, the Chamber has been a leader in convening stakeholders around jobs, labor, and workforce data. Data has been one of the biggest factors driving the decisions and actions of both the Chamber and Heartland Workforce Solutions. We lead with data, and in regards to educational attainment, use data as a platform to help people understand their role in driving change and improving outcomes.
The role we play as a convener brings groups to the table that would benefit from working together to help build a better education system. Within education there are also lot of partners, such as direct service providers, working with students or adults outside of traditional institutions. Our role has been to solidify a system that’s working together—bringing philanthropy, education, government and private business to the table—to help strengthen the education pipeline.
Q: Can you tell me about your chamber's overall education and workforce development portfolio of work?
A; The chamber is leading a three-pronged strategy to build a cohesive cradle-to-career system, ensuring systems and partners are in alignment from preschool to workforce development.
The first leg of the strategy uses data to realign talent development along the P-16 pipeline in alignment with workforce needs. We convene partners to provide data on where the jobs are and what skills they require, and then work on how to realign programs, such as those focused on Information Technology and STEM, to meet those industry needs. An analysis we conducted of workforce needs for our region showed that our talent supply was not meeting industry demand, specifically in areas of IT and engineering. We had a huge demand for that type of talent, but our post-secondary completion rates in those fields were falling way behind the curve. For example, last year we surveyed 156 companies that are looking to hire over 1400 IT professionals over the next 2 years; and the number of students graduating college with those skills is nowhere near that number. The issue wasn’t that students weren’t graduating, but it was that not enough students were getting into the programs that match workforce needs. Therefore, we looked deeply into the kind of career awareness and exposure students get at a very young age that could lead them into post-secondary STEM focused programs, such as IT.
The second leg of our strategy is to grow and retain talent through career awareness programs and marketing strategies focused on engaging individuals at a young age. The ACCE Lumina Education Attainment Award is helping us expand a career awareness campaign that exposes youth to IT and other STEM careers. Marketing and promotion taking place within the schools helps shift student perceptions about IT careers and directs them to outside opportunities to work alongside IT professionals—such as camps, internships and mentorships. We also host Teacher Internships to build career awareness among students. Forty educators work with twenty participating employers over the course of a week to learn about STEM and IT careers and the kinds of skills needed to land those jobs. (See program video here.) Participating teachers are paid for their time and are required to submit new lesson plans that incorporates what they learned from their internship into their curriculum.
The third leg of our strategy is to take on an advocacy and public policy role that drives decision-making at the local level. We were at the table advocating for new leadership within our public school system by: 1) recruiting candidates from the community to run for school board positions; and 2) serving on the selection committee for the public school superintendent. We also recently completed a bond proposal for supporting public schools, which our chamber’s board supported and helped pass locally.
Q: What best practices and/or lessons learned can you share with other chamber professionals working on education reform?
A: Having data to drive your strategies and decisions is huge. It changed the way in which we operated and gave us information that everyone could convene around, understand and utilize. Then, it’s important to understand that the power of convening partners around a common issue and finding opportunities to collaborate is far more beneficial and influential than one could possibly realize. Also, quality relationships take time to build and they require maintenance, but they’re huge for our work! Making relationships a focus of your work and being that convener that brings people together is crucial. Lastly, it’s important to respect different perspectives and what everyone brings to the table. Often when trying to influence or advance an education and workforce development issue, stakeholders will have different experiences that represent all sides and shapes of an issue. Many of us are not educators, yet we’re trying to influence what happens in education, so respect is essential when working collaboratively.