College scholarships, the annual ball and its work in agriculture and communities throughout Nebraska and western Iowa have long been bedrocks of the Aksarben Foundation.
But in the past year, the group has been working to address alarms sounded by Nebraska businesses. The state is in desperate need of highly qualified workers, and the philanthropic organization feels uniquely positioned to support solutions to that challenge.
“We have a statewide footprint. We’re not focused on any one industry or political issue,’’ said Sandra Reding, foundation president. “Our focus is the state of Nebraska and its well-being.’’
Reding said workforce development has become an important focus. The foundation’s philosophy is that educators have been aiming to meet the workforce demands for years, but there needs to be zero degrees of separation between business leaders and education to bridge the gap in Nebraska going forward.
“We’re really focusing on talent retention and attraction, as well as education,’’ Reding said. “How do we keep our young people, 18 to 34, in the state? The focus is on high-paying jobs and room for advancement to help keep them.’’
Some initiatives are already in motion, thanks to four business leaders the Aksarben Foundation has tapped to help bring about change.
Mickey Anderson is heading up the transportation and trades development committee and Mike Cassling the Nebraska Tech Collaborative. Mike Flood is working in the northeast Nebraska region around Norfolk and Matt Maser in the central Nebraska region around Grand Island.
Cassling is the head of the CQuence Health Group, Anderson is a partner of Baxter Auto Group. Flood is founder and owner of Flood Communications, and Maser is an attorney with Koley Jessen.
Cassling said companies are leaving because they can’t find enough talent. Other businesses have declined to locate here.
“The workforce shortage is dramatic, and it’s only going to get worse without action,’’ he says.
His committees are looking at several issues, including heightening awareness of opportunities in the Midwest; driving education starting in kindergarten that can teach children about technology; providing internships; creating opportunities for women, minorities and veterans; and building programs at the college level to educate a huge workforce.
“We need hundreds of thousands of people,’’ he says. “If you look at the numbers, it’s staggering.’’
He has talked to officials at the state’s colleges and universities, and businesses have been eager to get involved. Up to now, he said, there’s been a lot of talk but no action.
That time is over, he and Flood of the northeast Nebraska region agree.
Flood said businesses and community and agricultural leaders across the northeast are coming together to work on a plan.
While others may say the issue is developing a workforce, for his group its depopulation. The northeast part of the state averages 35 percent fewer four-year graduates than the rest of Nebraska.
“Our small towns are emptying out,’’ he said.
To counteract that, his group is focusing on five areas: creating venture capital to expand businesses, increasing the number of students who can work in highly skilled fields, creating density in small towns to attract young people and reeducating the workforce.
The fifth area may be surprising. It’s a focus on arts and culture.
“The Harvard Business Review will tell you introducing art breeds business innovation,’’ Flood said. “That same spirit translates into business innovations, entrepreneurship and creation of ideas.’’
Flood said his group is approaching area businesses, philanthropy and the City of Norfolk for funding.
The bottom line, he says, is having a workforce that can take on the technology of booming automation and keeping 20-year-olds at home in Nebraska instead of going elsewhere.
“We’re calling our effort, ‘Growing Together,’ ’’ he said.
Maser’s group is trying to figure out ways to grow the workforce in central Nebraska. Grand Island, he said, is behind the eight ball because it doesn’t have a university, so young people interested in a four-year degree have to leave.
“It’s hard for us once they leave to get them to come back,’’ he said. “We’re trying to remedy that problem.’’
His committee is exploring summer internships. Another option is bringing upper-level college students to Grand Island for internships during their final year of school while they complete their degree.
An important part of each of those programs is not just bringing young people to the city, but also making sure they have a chance to explore what the area has to offer.
“We have the jobs,’’ he said.
In transportation and trades, Anderson said they’re trying to reach students for internships in their senior year of high school instead of waiting until after they graduate. Fields such as automotive and diesel technicians are a focus.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a significant decline in high school graduates considering this as their career,’’ Anderson said. “By exposing them to automotive careers and the trades, we’re increasing the number of kids interested in pursuing this after graduation. The kids are our future workforce.’’
Anderson said there’s tremendous demand with great employers, which would allow people to make a career in the transportation field.
The focus on keeping the state’s best and brightest at home has spilled over into the scholarship area of the foundation. Reding said Aksarben | Horatio Alger State Scholarship recipients must stay and go to school in Nebraska as do the Aksarben Career Promise Scholars at Metro Community College.
“You no longer can take that funding and go elsewhere,’’ she said. “We certainly need to do all we can to keep talent here.’’
Aksarben awards more than $1 million in scholarships per year, including its Aksarben Ag leaders and Aksarben Purple Ribbon Scholarships, which are tied to the Aksarben Stock Show in Grand Island.
Although workforce development has moved front and center, the foundation continues to be proud of its work throughout the heartland with its four scholarship programs, community grants, recognizing its agricultural heritage by honoring Aksarben Farm Families and with the support of the Aksarben Stock Show, as well as the annual celebration of volunteerism and philanthropy at the Aksarben Ball.
“That’s all part of being state-centric,’’ Reding said.
Aksarben has touched all 93 counties in Nebraska and dozens in western Iowa, she said.
However, Anderson said the new focus on workforce development is vital. He said he recently read that Nebraska is ranked as one of the top five hardest-working states in the U.S.
“We cannot allow hard-working Nebraskans to be our No. 1 export. We have to put them to work here and build our own economy,’’ he said. “We know that keeping our kids here, it’s critical to the growth and future success of the state.’’