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Nebraska is providing $250,000 to two businesses that plan to provide advanced STEM education opportunities to middle schoolers.
The Developing Youth Talent Initiative, established in 2015, distributes money to businesses that partner with schools to engage middle school students in hands-on career education in high-demand fields such as IT, manufacturing, engineering and health care.
One of this year’s recipients, 21st Century Equipment, will receive $125,000 to build a mobile learning lab that will travel to multiple schools to give students opportunities to work with advanced technology used in “precision agriculture,” according to CEO Owen Palm. Palm said the company is partnering with more than 20 school districts, with their lead partnership based in Scottsbluff.
The other recipient, MetalQuest, also received $125,000. It will provide technology to schools with established robotics programs and bring students to their facilities, according to Vice President Scott Volk. This is the second time MetalQuest, with a machine shop in Hebron, has received a grant from the program.
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At a news conference Monday to announce the grant recipients, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Nebraska has experienced 12 months of record employment that has ended with the state having the second-lowest unemployment rate in the U.S. While that’s a good sign, Ricketts said it also has contributed to challenging labor shortages in many industries.
Ricketts said about 50,000 job openings have been reported across Nebraska, but Volk indicated the actual need for workers may be higher. MetalQuest, which has about 65 employees, doesn’t advertise all of its job openings, he said, because the company can’t grow to accommodate that number of workers. Volk said the same is true for many small companies.
“We’re never going to be ahead of that curve,” Volk said.
To help close that gap, Nebraska Economic Development Director Tony Goins said there is a “critical need” to educate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and find ways to ensure they seek employment within the state after graduating.
“We have to reach kids at a young age,” Goins said.
The grant program still is new enough that most of the students who have participated are still in school, Ricketts said. He said the program has increased participating students’ interests in manufacturing careers and increased enrollment in classes relevant to Nebraska’s key industries.
Since the program began, Ricketts said, it has reached about 24,500 students across more than 60 Nebraska schools.
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