Investing in the Future Workforce

December 8, 2023

A few years ago, a leader from a local business within the trades industry reached out to me and asked for guidance on how to recruit and retain local young people interested in a future career in the trades.  Though I wish I had an immediate solution, I did not…. however, I am fortunate to know many brilliant individuals who might!

The search for ideas and solutions eventually led us to the most obvious of all notions- ask the young people that will be our future workforce! Though potentially oversimplified, it was obvious and spoke from the heart of our rural community mindset.

This year, the voices of nearly 4,000 students across the 23 panhandle school districts allowed us to begin a course of action that was aimed at creating career pathways with AND for youth in the panhandle.  By leveraging youth voice and the collective wisdom and collaboration of many esteemed leaders within a diverse array of organizations, institutions, and businesses, Career Connections of Western Nebraska was born.

Once the direction and focus were clear, the need for a backbone entity was paramount to continue to drive the work that this group had in mind.  A local economic development hub,

Twin Cities Development, stepped up to the plate as fiscal agent, coordinator, and backbone entity for what the group name Career Connections of Western Nebraska.

As a Private Foundation, we do not always have the opportunity to be directly involved with the fruits of shared labor, but in this scenario, we were able to act as a partner within this collaborative and participatory model, through both funding support and actual involvement in the development and implementation.

2023 has gone very quicky for this team, with numerous successes to report as we move into a new and exciting year, including the proud announcement of a groundbreaking initiative aimed at transforming career exploration for high school students. With a mission to address challenges in workforce recruitment and retention faced by local companies, Career Connections, in collaboration with 23 school districts across 11 counties in the Nebraska Panhandle, conducted a comprehensive Teen Opportunity Survey.

Over the course of the survey, which engaged nearly 4,000 6th through 12th graders, students provided insights into their post-graduation plans, career interests, community involvement, and more. Key findings indicate a shift in aspirations, with 65% of students planning to attend college, down from 75% five years ago, and 13% intending to enter the workforce directly after high school. Notably, 49% envision themselves living in western Nebraska in the future, reflecting a commitment to the local community.

To translate these findings into actionable initiatives, the Career Connections team developed the innovative Career Cabs program. This initiative involved business tours tailored for 10th-grade students, exposing them to diverse career industries. In November, over 650 students from three Panhandle regions explored seven different career sectors across more than 50 Western Nebraska businesses. Industries covered included agriculture, food and natural resources, business management, education, criminal justice, health science, human services, and trades.

2024 promises great things for this work in the panhandle, and we are very proud to have been asked that first tough question, as it has led us to this beautiful collaboration.

Interested in reading the Youth Opportunity Survey results?