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Progress Nelnet at Hudl, 2.13

Nelnet, like many other companies in Nebraska, has a hard time filling the tech-related positions it has.

When Nelnet Chairman Mike Dunlap started working on an effort to boost tech talent in Nebraska, he said the Lincoln company had about 45 openings for tech-related jobs.

Fast forward a year later, and that number of openings is now 80.

"So the problem is not getting better, it's getting worse," Dunlap said Monday at a news conference at Nebraska Innovation Campus to announce a new initiative, the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, aimed at both producing and recruiting more tech workers for the state's businesses.

From an initial meeting between Dunlap and Mutual of Omaha CEO James Blackledge in Ashland, the effort has blossomed into an organization with a full-time president and more than 50 companies, the University of Nebraska and several other universities, and the Omaha and Lincoln chambers of commerce involved.

Mike Cassling, chairman and CEO of Omaha firm CQuence Health and chairman of the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, said the state is losing jobs "at an alarming rate," as companies either choose to expand elsewhere or not at all because they can't find the workers they need.

"We have a crisis in this state, and we need everybody's help in the state to fix this," Cassling said.

Nebraska's job growth has been flat over the past few years, despite strong economic growth, while nearby states are growing their labor forces, some at double-digit rates, he said.

The area with the biggest problem is technology, Cassling said.

Among the issues he highlighted in the tech sector: Not enough awareness of the jobs available; more tech education needed, especially in K-12 schools; and more recruitment and development of female and minority employees.

Jona Van Deun, president of the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, said the solution is "to create our own pipeline."

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As for how to do that, "we're looking at everything."

That includes examining K-12 curriculum changes, creating more coding and mentoring programs, enrolling more students in tech fields in colleges, providing more internships for both high school and college students, and helping people make career changes or "upscale" to better jobs.

Van Deun, who recently moved to Omaha from Washington, D.C., said there also needs to be an effort to recruit tech entrepreneurs, startup companies and others to the area.

"We need to attract talent ... and retain that talent," she said.

"There's something special about being here, and, I do not know what's in the secret sauce of that, but once you get here, you feel it, and you understand it, and you want to stay here, and I want other people to feel that," Van Deun said.

The initiative is still in its early stages, and Van Deun acknowledged that "we have a lot of work ahead of us."

The group is holding a stakeholders meeting Friday and hosting a summit at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum on Nov. 1, and it wants to hear ideas from as many people as possible, Van Deun said.

Sandra Reding, president of the Aksarben Foundation, lauded the efforts of all the businesses involved.

"This kind of effort is unprecedented," said Reding, whose organization is acting in an "incubator" role for the Nebraska Tech Collaborative.

"These businesses are all competing for the same talent, but they know how serious the problem is."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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