By: Paul Hammel - April 12, 2022
LINCOLN — In Arkansas, enrollment in technology-related college courses increased 10-fold after the state passed a requirement that school kids pass computer-related classes.
“Now, they have companies moving there because they have skilled workers,” said Mike Cassling, the CEO of an Omaha health care tech firm.
Cassling was among advocates for an increase in computer technology courses who hailed the final approval Tuesday of a bill that will, by 2026-27, require that graduates of Nebraska high schools pass at least one five-credit-hour course in computer science or technology.
Shortage of tech workers
Cassling, the CEO of CQuence Health Group, heads the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, a coalition of 100 of the state’s top employers, educators and philanthropists pushing for improved tech training.
He said Nebraska currently has a workforce “crisis” — a shortage of 4,000 workers in the tech sector, a shortage that is predicted to rise to 10,000 within four years.
It’s not just computer programmers, but also cybersecurity workers, skilled employees who can run automated manufacturing systems and manage high-tech agricultural operations.
“If we don’t fix this problem, businesses will be looking to move their offices,” Cassling said.
The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Terrell McKinney of Omaha and Julie Slama of Sterling, gives schools until the 2024-25 school year to incorporate computer science and technology classes into their K-12 curriculum, in consultation with the Nebraska Department of Education.
Rural senators object
The measure, which was patterned after a similar law passed in Arkansas in 2015, ran into some last-minute opposition from rural senators. They argued that smaller schools will face difficulty in adding another “unfunded mandate” and that it could block some students from graduating.
“I don’t think we should make it more difficult for kids to graduate from high school,” said Columbus Sen. Mike Moser.
Venango Sen. Dan Hughes claimed the bill was inspired by one company and one lobbyist, which he said was not the way to develop school curriculum.
But supporters of LB 1112, including McKinney, rejected that charge. They said the bill was inspired by an overall concern about preparing kids for the jobs of the 21st century.
“We should be preparing our kids for the future. If we don’t, we won’t be able to attract businesses to the state,” McKinney said.
Norfolk Sen. Mike Flood said automation is coming to Nebraska that promises, by 2030, to eliminate many of the low-skilled, low-wage jobs that now exist in rural areas.
Employment at a pork processing plant in his district could be cut by two-thirds, he said, and the giant Nucor steel plant near Norfolk is already employing about half of the workforce it had in the 1970s due to automation.
“We are sitting ducks in Nebraska,” Flood said. “I actually think this is a workforce emergency.”
“Everything is changing,” he added. “This bill is necessary.”
McKinney as well as Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, who chairs the Legislature’s Education Committee, pledged to work over the summer with small school districts and the state Education Department to ensure that adding computer education requirements won’t overburden small schools.
LB 1112 provides that the new tech courses could be taught online, but Cassling said some training will be necessary for teachers. He added that some schools are already offering such courses, but most are not, and said it’s important to provide the right courses.
No expensive tuition
In Arkansas, besides increasing interest in tech careers overall, Cassling said the requirement caused a 50-fold increase in the number of females and students of color who enrolled in technical courses.
Unlike medical or law school, he added, tech education doesn’t require expensive tuition payments or large student loans.
LB 1112 now heads to Gov. Pete Ricketts for his signature. Cassling said the governor has spoken in favor of the bill in the past.
Overall, Cassling said, it’s been a good year for those promoting computer technology training. As part of the state budget, an additional $20 million will be invested in internship programs, including those in tech companies. The Nebraska Tech Collaborative is raising $5 million in matching funds for the paid internships.
“Everything we do anymore is related to technology, whether it’s your Iphone or whatever,” Cassling said. “We need kids to understand that and build up their skills.”