Career Education plays vital role in rural economic development

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Many rural communities across Nebraska are looking at the skilled trade businesses in their hometowns—and they are concerned. They see an aging workforce and the potential disappearance of local talent and skill upon which their residents rely for fundamental services and economic vitality.

Students team up on an auto repair project at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center. Innovative Career Technical Education (CTE) programs such as this are providing students with workplace experience, technical knowledge and the opportunity to apply math, science and English classes in real-world situations.

Students team up on an auto repair project at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center.

Local economic development leaders such as Caleb Pollard see Career Education as a key component in the sustainability of rural communities. Pollard, Executive Director of Valley County Economic Development, believes that Career Education is an important factor in the continued health and vitality of rural communities across Nebraska. “A push for Career Education is important for a community like Ord, not only to produce our next generation of skilled trades people such as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics, but to produce people who know how to run a successful, sustainable business as well. That’s a very different concept—and it’s critical to our economic wellbeing and our future,” he said.

Entrepreneurship is a significant focus of Career Edcuation programs across Nebraska as rural communities look to retain their young people. “Studies show that kids want to own their own business, but that doesn’t mean they are trained to do it,” said KC Belitz, executive director of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. “Helping students learn to think entrepreneurially, whether they are working for themselves or for someone else, is incredibly valuable.”

Sustaining a rural workforce is not just about helping people start their own businesses. It’s also about ensuring that existing companies have the skilled people they need to grow—demonstrating an even further need for career education.

According to Belitz, there were some 1,200 available jobs in the Columbus area prior to the 2008 economic downturn—many of them good-paying positions in manufacturing that require technical skill. “That was almost an emergency situation,” he said.

While that number dropped significantly over the past two years, Belitz expects that it won’t be long until job demand is back to summer 2008 levels. “When the national economy turns around and the demand goes back up at our manufacturing concerns in town, we’ll be right back where we were,” Belitz said. “The numbers don’t lie. There are too many people retiring and not enough filling those spots.”

Two students at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center square up a framing project in the center's construction lab. Career Technical Education (CTE) in Nebraska is helping develop the next generation of skilled trade workers and entrepreneurs needed to maintain services and economic vitality in rural and urban areas of Nebraska.

Two students at the Omaha Public Schools Career Center square up a framing project in the center's construction lab.

Technical courses and career exploration in high school can help students become more aware of career options that match their interests and talents. When they enter college—either a community college or a four-year institution—they are more clearly focused on a career path, and can gain the valuable knowledge they need to improve their skill level and get prepared for a high-skill, high-wage, high-demand career.

But how do students in rural Nebraska learn more about what types of careers are available in their own backyards? Gary Warren of Hamilton Telecommunications in Aurora, says that there need to be more opportunities for students to actually experience careers available in their hometowns. “We need to make sure there are a number of meaningful internships offered with local businesses each year,” he said. “We also need to do more career shadowing so that students can see the variety of opportunities in their area. For example, do students really understand the range of careers available here in Aurora at the Procter & Gamble pet food plant or within Hamilton Telecommunications? Each year, students need to be touring these facilities and seeing the full range of opportunities from manufacturing to information technology to sales and marketing to business management.”