August 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nicole Shobanjo is an information technology student who could be forced to move away from Omaha after she earns her computer programming degree from Metropolitan Community College.

The 38-year-old—a stay-at-home mom who operates an in-house day care business when she’s not studying—says there is a lack of IT-based careers in the greater Omaha metro.

“I don’t want to have to [go to] school here and then leave,” she says. “I feel like the market is locked down.”

Shobanjo says Metro provides opportunities for IT students with assistance in securing internships and possible jobs after graduation. She also says they pair students with tutors, counselors, and advisers. With her busy schedule, she says those resources help—especially on days when landing her dream job in Omaha feels unlikely.

However, a future tech career for Shobanjo and other hopefuls in the Omaha area is looking brighter because of an initiative called Tech Talent Growth. The long-term plan, spearheaded by the Greater Omaha Chamber and AIM Institute, calls for the metro to have at least 20,000 tech workers by 2020. AIM is a nonprofit that dedicates resources to the metro’s local tech talent through career development and educational programs.

Tech Talent Growth wants to take 500 workers from non-IT jobs and plant them into the tech industry. They want to create a population shift, moving 1,250 people from cities outside of the Omaha metro and bringing them here. According to their statistics, 2,500 tech graduates also should flow into the metro population. Keeping them here is the real challenge, says Holly Benson, tech talent manager at the chamber and AIM.

In 2015, there were about 15,700 tech jobs in the Omaha metro. Organization officials say the addition of these 4,250 jobs during the next five years could boost the Omaha metro’s economy by $1 billion.

Benson says one of the major challenges to bringing that many skilled workers to Omaha will be making the city more appealing to big name tech companies and a future workforce. With the help of area colleges, businesses, and community leaders, she says it’s a realistic goal.

Benson, who moved from Northern California to Omaha, says the city is already making great progress in providing desirable quality-of-life offerings for up-and-coming tech talent.

“Part of this project is bringing visibility to Omaha,” Benson says of the city’s future as a tech hub. “There’s a lot of opportunities at people’s fingertips. They just don’t know where to look.”

She adds Omaha doesn’t feel “saturated,” like larger cities. At her previous job, Benson commuted hours each day to work at Google.

“I really enjoy a slower pace, owning a home, and having a 15-minute commute,” she says. “Everyone is really genuine and authentic here, which is different than some of the larger markets.”

Tech Talent Growth poises to benefit local IT students such as Shobanjo, who’s already thought about moving to Dallas with her husband. Shobanjo says he has struggled to find tech work in Omaha.

It’s a simple formula—if Shobanjo can’t find IT work, her family will probably move. This is something Tech Talent Growth has acknowledged as an issue in the Omaha metro.

“There clearly is a gap in what the area is producing and the needs of the businesses,” Benson says. “I think the talent exists, but due to the demand, we need to [recruit] the tech talent.”

The group is addressing the issue with the mindset to “develop, attract, and retain talent” locally. Part of it is working with existing partners to help provide summer programs, after-school opportunities, and weekend opportunities for youths interested in technology careers. In fact, Shobanjo is one of those people, who discovered a passion for the tech field at a young age. It started with building parts of computers and customizing hardware.

“It has been in my heart since I was younger,” Shobanjo says.

Tech Talent Growth is teaming up with educational institutions, businesses, and the community to attract IT jobs with competitive salaries to ensure professional growth and attract new talent. Ideal progress would be increased enrollment in, and completion of, local university college programs. The organization wants to create a scholarship for future students and establish a one-stop online shop for youth tech opportunities. They also want to be inclusive to minorities, women, veterans, and low-income students.

Tech Talent Growth is working with K-12 schools, the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Omaha Code School, and Iowa Western Community College to inform students about local opportunities.

“It’s a community project,” Benson says. “What we’re seeing with the Silicon Prairie hat is that we’re not the first place people think of when it comes to tech.”

While keeping an emphasis on local occupations, Tech Talent Growth will help create a stronger identity in the Midwest with IT-related opportunities in Omaha.

“That’s why it’s incredibly important for us to be educating our youth at every age,” Benson emphasizes.

Visit omahachamber.org for more information.

This article published in the Fall 2017 edition of B2B.

Holly Benson