Guest Column: UNK positioned to lead Nebraska rural health, workforce strategies

Douglas Kristensen, Chancellor
University of Nebraska at Kearney

The vast expanse of talent in Nebraska’s 86 nonmetropolitan counties is looking to the University of Nebraska – more than ever – to provide leadership and resources to increase rural job prospects and earning potential to strengthen their communities and families.

Two recent studies – the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “Life in Rural America” report and the Nebraska Rural Poll – provide interesting insights into the challenges facing rural communities. The studies also reinforce why the University of Nebraska at Kearney is positioned to lead and support our rural community members through these times of incredible change.

Rural Americans feel a strong attachment to their community, as evidenced in the RWJF report and experienced here in Minden and Kearney where I live and work. Rural Americans enjoy life in their small town, being around good people, and the closeness of their community. Being near family is important. Yet the report, perhaps surprisingly, indicates the top two concerns for rural Americans are drug addiction and abuse, alongside economic challenges.

Rural economic concerns are not a surprising finding in the RWJF report. In the survey, rural Americans report high job satisfaction, yet a significant share believes that new training or skills are important for their future. The 2018 Nebraska Rural Poll brings out these same national perspectives here in our state. More rural Nebraskans, particularly in the Panhandle, expect to switch careers within the next 10 years. Rural Nebraskans are also reporting concerns about the long-term stability of their job or career prospects.

These same rural Nebraskans report their beliefs that in addition to their own personal responsibility, colleges and universities have the greatest responsibility for workforce training.

Rural health care and workforce education and development needs are a priority for University of Nebraska at Kearney. As the state’s rural university, we focus every day on developing and strengthening programs highlighted as concerns in these reports.

Ninety-one of Nebraska’s counties are lacking in numbers of primary care physicians. On top of that, one in five physicians is older than 65 and nearing retirement. UNK, through the Central Nebraska Area Health Education Center, is helping to get rural high school students interested in healthcare sciences even before they decide where to go to college. We know that students who get their education in a rural setting are more likely to stay and work in a rural area. That fact helped the university secure the vision and funding for the Health Science Education complex, a $19 million state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2015. Leadership and collaboration are critical, as evidenced by UNK and University of Nebraska Medical Center working together to support students in health science undergraduate programs and graduate-level professional training.

Another example of UNK’s success in rural workforce development is our Industrial Distribution program, which prepares students for careers in technical, business-to-business sales and management positions using a curriculum that’s tailored to meet current industry needs. Individuals, trade associations, distributors and manufacturers work closely with instructors to fine-tune this training while adding to the classroom experience through guest lectures, career fairs and other activities. Students get hands-on training in a campus-based simulation lab and a required 12-week internship program.

Some other areas of focus in workforce development at UNK are cyber systems and security, and science and technology fields – and areas highlighted as high-skill, high-demand, high-wage areas by the Nebraska Department of Labor. Under a university-supported bill proposed in the Legislature as “H3” jobs, scholarships for these careers would be made available as an investment in Nebraska’s long-term economic growth. LB 639 would provide up to $30 million annually to Nebraskans attending a state public postsecondary institution. The goal is to help fill the state’s 35,000 projected H3 job-openings with an educated workforce.

We also continue, in keeping with our historic leadership role in educating and preparing Nebraska’s teachers, to improve access and success in education programs to address growing K-12 teacher shortages. A new Teachers Scholars Academy generously supported by the William and Ruth Scott Family Foundation provides full-tuition and partial education expenses for future teachers, and 40 UNK students will earn this scholarship and academy. Our new Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center under construction will be the model for early childhood and Montessori training – increasing the skill levels and earning potential for educators – and ultimately improving families and communities through quality early childhood programming.

This said, these educational opportunities are important, and we need more of them. That requires collaboration with other quality programs in our university system, communities, private industries and individuals, to deliver them here. We rural Nebraskans should not expect less just because of where we live.

With the assistance of the Rural Futures Institute and our strong relationships with businesses and organizations throughout rural Nebraska, UNK can hear, and respond, to the workforce needs of our rural communities. Whether it’s a demand for educators, lawyers, business owners, nurses and other healthcare professionals, UNK’s unique role in the University of Nebraska system positions Kearney as the best place for students in rural Nebraska to get hands-on learning, affordable access, and professional networking and skills close to home.

Leadership is critical to the vitality of our rural communities and Nebraska and the life that you and I enjoy. Together, we can build a stronger rural Nebraska for the future.