It’s commencement season at the University of Nebraska – a time for us to celebrate the achievements of thousands of young people who are about to start a new chapter in their lives.
I am often asked to characterize the university’s impact on the state’s economy. To me, there’s almost no more powerful force for economic growth than the thousands of graduates Nebraska’s colleges and universities produce for the workforce every year, including 11,000 students who graduate annually from the University of Nebraska.
These young people are Nebraska’s future farmers and ranchers, nurses and doctors, teachers, artists and entrepreneurs. Upwards of 40 percent of them are the first in their families to attend college. Every graduating class of the University of Nebraska has a $2.4 billion impact on Nebraska’s economy.
I know each diploma being handed out this week represents a story of hard work, sacrifice and opportunity. And each new graduate will be a catalyst for change for Nebraska’s quality of life and economic competitiveness.
There’s just one problem.
We are proud of our growth over time, but Nebraska is not producing nearly enough college graduates to solve the urgent workforce crisis facing our state.
In the years ahead, Nebraska will have 35,000 annual openings in the high-skill, high-demand, high-wage jobs that are key to our future prosperity – jobs like nursing, engineering and software development. Two-thirds of these jobs will require higher education. The needs exist from the eastern part of the state to the Panhandle.
It’s no surprise that every business leader I talk to says their top three needs are workforce, workforce and workforce. Nebraska is part of a fierce national competition for talent and jobs. We can be the hunter, or we can be the hunted.
As University of Nebraska-Lincoln Engineering Dean Lance Perez told our Board of Regents recently as he described double-digit job growth occurring in fields like electrical engineering and information systems management: “If we don’t get ahead of this, those jobs are going to go somewhere else. And that would be a real tragedy for the state of Nebraska.”
The good news is I am convinced the opportunities for Nebraska to lead in the race for talent have never been greater.
Our campuses are home to some of the best faculty in the world – teachers, scientists and doctors whose work is feeding a hungry world, protecting our women and men in uniform and developing new treatments for cancer.
We are fortunate to have the support of visionary and generous private partners who recognize our momentum and want to be a part of it.
And we have a strong partnership with the state that has ensured affordable, outstanding higher education for Nebraska students and families for more than 150 years.
That partnership is as important now as it has ever been. None of us can meet the urgent needs of our state alone.
Fortunately, elected leaders in Nebraska recognize the critical role higher education plays in building a strong future for the state. Chairman John Stinner, Vice Chairwoman Kate Bolz and members of the Appropriations Committee in particular have shown great foresight in developing a budget package that prioritizes education and economic growth. I am grateful for their leadership in building on the steps taken by Governor Ricketts and funding the University of Nebraska’s budget request. The Committee’s budget would keep tuition affordable for our 52,000 students and help the university turn the corner after a difficult fiscal period. I hope the full Legislature will agree.
As I’ve told my own children more times than they can count, the decisions we make determine the life we lead.
Nebraska has an opportunity to make decisions now that will impact the growth and prosperity of our state for generations to come. I hope we’ll decide to send the right message to the young people walking across the stage to collect their diploma – this week and years into the future.