Effort to interest teens in Nebraska high-tech manufacturing careers awards new grants

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts’ effort to interest more Nebraska teens in high-tech, manufacturing and health care jobs in the state handed out two new grants on Monday.

Hebron-based MetalQuest and 21st Century Equipment, a John Deere dealership with outlets in western Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado, received grants of $125,000 each through the Developing Youth Talent Initiative, launched by Ricketts in 2015.

The program, designed to spark interest in high-demand careers like IT, manufacturing and health care, has reached 24,500 students across 66 Nebraska school districts since it was launched.

Ricketts and representatives of the two grant recipients said Monday at a press conference that it was too soon to say whether seventh and eighth graders involved in the program had taken jobs in those fields because the first participants would just now be completing college and tech school.

Nebraska, according to some business leaders, faces a crisis in attracting workers, with about 50,000 vacant jobs across the state.

Tony Goins, the director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, said the state and the nation face “a critical need” for workers skilled in information technology, math and science.

Scott Volk of MetalQuest, which employs 65 people, said he could find work for 10 more employees if he could just hire them.

Owen Palm of 21st Century Equipment said he has 40 job openings companywide.

Ricketts said the program has worked to increase interest among middle schoolers in tech and manufacturing careers. A survey of students at Sandy Creek and Lawrence-Nelson schools found that interest in such careers increased from 39% to 75% after students were exposed to the work being done at MetalQuest.

In addition, Ricketts said, enrollment in science and technical skills classes also increased.

MetalQuest is using its grant to purchase robotic equipment similar to what the firm uses, to introduce students to industrial robotics automation and coding, Volk said.

Palm said 21st Century Equipment will use its grant funds to purchase, construct and assemble a mobile learning lab.

The lab, which will be based at the Scottsbluff School District, will visit students at 19 schools throughout the Nebraska Panhandle and introduce students to the technologies involved in precision agriculture.

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