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By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Intellicom, Xpanxion, Five Nines, Black Brick Software and The Buckle.
Those are a few of the local companies that come to mind when Elizabeth Roetman is asked about the strong demand for workers in technology-related fields.
The full list of businesses seeking tech-savvy employees is much longer, and it’s expected to grow as development continues at the Tech oNE Crossing technology park in northeast Kearney.
“Area employers communicate that many times the hardest jobs to fill are the skilled positions that require a background in science, technology, engineering or mathematics,” said Roetman, vice president of the Economic Development Council of Buffalo County. “As our community progresses and technology evolves, we’ll continue to see the demand for STEM positions increase.”
High-quality education in these areas is vital to the region’s economic growth, according to Roetman.
Comments like these aren’t lost on leaders at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, which is doing its part to train the technology workers of tomorrow.
The latest advancement is the creation of a new cyber systems department that combines five existing academic programs and adds the cybersecurity operations major that’s launching this fall.
The department, approved June 28 by the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, merges applied computer science, computer science comprehensive, information technology, information networking and telecommunications and management information systems, along with cybersecurity operations, into a single, cohesive unit.
“A one-stop shop for all these programs just makes perfect sense,” said professor Sherri Harms, who chaired the former computer science and information technology department and is interim chair of the cyber systems department.
The new department, part of the College of Business and Technology, makes it clear to students and employers where to look for information technology-related programs. It will also promote increased collaboration among faculty and students who were previously spread across multiple departments and two colleges.
“This move should help strengthen all of our programs,” said Harms, noting that faculty will review curriculum to eliminate redundancies and better serve students. The change does not impact the academic requirements for the five existing programs.
It will, however, lead to the addition of a new department chair to be selected at a later date. A replacement will also be hired for a recently retired faculty member.
Harms, who has served as a department chair for 11 1/2 years, said the goal is to bring “fresh ideas” to the programs. She’ll continue teaching within the department after the new chair is selected.
Bryan Kuntz, vice president of operations for Intellicom, likes the direction UNK is heading to address the need for more tech workers locally, statewide and nationally.
“I believe the new department combined with the new STEM building will help attract more students to these programs,” Kuntz said. “I also believe that combining the programs and redefining curriculum will ultimately result in a student who is better prepared for the workforce.”
Intellicom, a Kearney-based, full-service IT provider with clients across the country, committed to a five-year partnership in October 2014 that provides financial support and equipment for UNK’s information networking and telecommunications program and puts the company’s technical professionals in the classroom to help guide students.
The company has a long history of hiring UNK students as interns, then employing those workers full time after graduation. A “very strong majority” of Intellicom’s employees are UNK graduates, according to Kuntz.
“UNK does a great job of combining classroom education with experiential learning opportunities and produces a well-rounded student who is prepared to jump into their first full-time job and really make an impact,” he said.
The cyber systems department will give UNK students a chance to explore all six programs before picking a specific degree path while still graduating in four years, Harms said.
“We have several programs that are unique across Nebraska,” she said. “There’s no place like this.”
The department will receive an additional boost in fall 2019, when the $30 million STEM building is expected to open, bringing UNK’s science, technology, engineering and math programs together inside an 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility.
That project means as much to the community as it does the university.
“Improving achievement in science, technology, engineering and math will go a long way in ensuring we stay competitive, create jobs and grow the economy,” said Roetman. “Having a building dedicated to STEM will also make us more attractive to companies that may want to locate in Kearney, specifically at the tech park.”