Our University: Nebraska’s future depends on the steps we take today

Editor’s note: “Our University” is a column from University of Nebraska Regent Paul Kenney, who represents District 6, covering the following counties: Boyd, Holt, Antelope, Garfield, Wheeler, Boone, Valley, Greeley, Sherman, Howard, Nance, Merrick, Polk, York, Hamilton, Hall, Buffalo, Kearney, Adams, Webster and Franklin.

University of Nebraska Regent, District 6

Last week, my community celebrated the 100th annual meeting of the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce – a great partner in growing our state’s workforce and quality of life.

I was struck by the keynote speech by my friend Michael Yanney, a Kearney native who’s now an Omaha philanthropist accomplishing great things.

Paul Kenney
Paul Kenney

Mr. Yanney told the audience about incredible innovations happening across the University of Nebraska’s campuses. He spoke of robots that can perform surgery at UNMC, of record growth in research funding to our faculty, of our ability to use technology to connect with students and patients whether they’re in Kearney, Scottsbluff or China. He lifted up the Kearney area as a model in public-private collaboration, with the Chamber, the city and UNK accomplishing things together that none could achieve alone.

Mr. Yanney likened that rapid progress to the opportunities that lie ahead for Nebraska.

“We must put this state on a course that will give our citizens a bright future,” he said.

I couldn’t agree more. And at this critical moment in Nebraska’s history, I hope we will remember the decisions we make now will impact our state for generations to come. With my own six grandchildren in mind, I can’t think of a greater responsibility than making sure today’s young people have access to the education, technology, health care and high-paying jobs that will keep them right here in Nebraska.

We’re doing many things well already.

The combination of educational quality and value that we offer our students, for example, is almost unrivaled, thanks to a tradition of support from elected leaders.

I’ve seen evidence of our educational excellence firsthand. I heard UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen say on the radio the other day that UNK is grounded in serving the needs of rural Nebraska. You see that philosophy come to life daily as UNK welcomes young men and women who are the first in their families to attend college and prepares them to become Nebraska’s future teachers, healthcare professionals and business leaders.

UNK is in good hands. The same goes for the entire University of Nebraska system under the leadership of President Hank Bounds and the chancellors.

The advances in technology and healthcare happening here, too, are impressive.

A few months ago, I learned of a family friend from my hometown who had been diagnosed with a rare form of West Nile virus and was being treated at our medical center in Omaha. The next day, I wrote to Chancellor Jeff Gold, “Even the tiny town of Amherst is affected by UNMC.”

As Michael Yanney said in his speech to the Kearney Chamber, the breakthroughs coming out of UNMC are remarkable. They are the result of unprecedented collaboration between the public and private sectors that gives new hope to thousands of Nebraskans facing life-threatening disease.

It’s not enough to celebrate how far we’ve come. We also need to look ahead, and take steps that will keep Nebraska competitive 10, 20 and 30 years down the road.

As President Bounds says, we’re facing a workforce crisis in our state. Our Department of Labor projects Nebraska will have 35,000 annual openings for high-skill, high-wage, high-demand jobs in the decade ahead – in nursing, engineering, accounting and other areas. The majority of those will require higher education.

In my area of the state alone, almost 60 percent of H3 jobs will require at least an associate’s degree. Nebraska isn’t producing enough talent to meet the need, and too many of our best and brightest are leaving the state.

As Nebraska Chamber of Commerce & Industry President Bryan Slone wisely told a legislative committee recently, a 50-state competition for workforce is looming, and “there will be winners and losers.”

We can’t afford to lose.

Nebraska’s future – the futures of my grandchildren and all our young people – depends on our ability to be forward-thinking today.

It’s going to take all of us working together to solve the challenge. Nebraskans have always been good at that. As I look to the year ahead, I’m confident we can pull together and chart an exciting path forward for the citizens of our state.