Education, Leadership, Cooperation Keys to Nebraska's Future

Education, Leadership, Cooperation Keys to Nebraska's Future

Education, positive leadership and cooperation are three keys to Nebraska's future economic success. And if a community is waiting for a silver bullet to provide a bright future...well, there aren't enough silver bullets to go around. But for communities with the right attitude, there's a bright future ahead.

Peter Kotsiopulos, Vice President for University Affairs in the University of Nebraska system, brings decades of experience in private business and community government to his NU position, where he's been since 2005. A former mayor of Kearney and three-term member of the Kearney City Council, Kotsiopulos is a proponent of forging partnerships; he believes Nebraska needs partnerships to build on its strengths and solidify its future.

Retention, Attraction and Growth
"There are probably 12 definitions for economic development, but I look at it as retention, attraction and growth," he said. And he believes it's the responsibility of higher education to lead the way when that topic arises.

Nebraska's small population - especially in greater Nebraska - means that smaller communities may benefit by working together in any way possible to ensure communities' survival. "We have 532 communities in the state, and more than 400 have less than 1,000 people. A little more than 480 are less than 2,500, so that leaves less than 50 communities with greater than 2,500 people," Kotsiopulos said. Lincoln has nearly 250,000 people, and Omaha nearly 500,000.

Even with their large populations relative to other communities in the state, Lincoln and Omaha also must work toward keeping jobs in Nebraska. "I see them talking to their larger employers, saying 'before you think of a satellite out of this state, can a piece of your business go to another community in this state?' And as that mentality happens, that will be one of our communities' salvations," he said. While communities should still attempt to recruit new companies, supporting and growing existing businesses within the state often pays more dividends, he said.

The future of Nebraska communities of all sizes depends on leadership and cooperation, and on involving young people in decisions that will affect their future, Kotsiopulos said.

"If communities, city councils and village boards aren't having conversations with their school and whatever organizations that are drivers - and they're not in the rowboat together - that's really hurtful to communities," Kotsiopulos said.

Kotsiopulos said he's been in meetings talking about cooperation and leadership and the importance of integrating young people into the decision-making process in communities. "I've had some people get up and say 'that won't work here,' and 'it's easy to say,' and 'you know, you're right, I'm out of here,'" he said. If that attitude is permeating the community, it will be hard for a struggling community to survive.

Education and Opportunities
Nebraska's economic future will require an educated work force in greater numbers than currently exist due to advancement in technology. Students can get a good education in Nebraska regardless of whether they attend community colleges, the University of Nebraska, state or private colleges, he said.

Kotsiopulos believes young people are willing to stay in Nebraska for the right opportunities, and many of those opportunities already exist. But "there isn't a week that goes by that somebody doesn't say 'oh, I wish I had known that existed,'" he said. Institutions of higher education and employers need to do a better job of communicating with one another regarding available jobs and qualified graduates. "It can't be that difficult, but I think it's huge," he said.

"There are an awful lot of young people who would like to replicate the lifestyle, the creature comforts from their respective home towns, if there are opportunities for them," he said. People who know about life in small towns are most likely to be drawn to that lifestyle, and some communities are being proactive about asking young people to come back.

Some towns are creating databases of people who have graduated from the community's high schools within the last 10 years, then making e-mail and direct-mail campaigns saying "here's what we have to offer," he said. Communities wanting to make the effort and pay attention to leadership will be communities that survive.

Sometimes survival requires difficult changes, such as school consolidation. "You can pick out the ones that have thought about this and decided it's in the best interest for the youth," Kotsiopulos said. Standardized college-entrance exam scores are rising in Nebraska, and he believes it is partly because more students are able to take the coursework expected of high school students nationwide.

Education changes things - especially if there's a school in the community. Any community in this nation would like to have some piece of higher education in their community, Kotsiopulos said, and it doesn't matter whether it's a community college, a branch of research or other entity. "It changes the complexion of a community," he said.

The economic benefit to any community is substantial: providing job growth, large pools of skilled labor, added stability and increased infrastructure.

Developing partnerships is important in communities; between and within the private and public sectors; in government; and in higher education. Kotsiopulos is working on partnerships that facilitate networking in Nebraska's higher-education system. The University of Nebraska Entrepreneurship team, or U-NET, was formed to provide networking opportunities within the NU system.

"We're drawing from each other's strengths," he said. "We don't want to make everything cookie-cutter, but we're trying to do more of the things that bring our talents together." U-NET includes people from the four NU campuses and is being expanded to include representatives from other Nebraska colleges and organizations. "This is an opportunity to share and really try and get us going in the same direction. There's a lot of action in Lincoln and Omaha, but everyone needs to understand the network of resources - especially those in greater Nebraska," he said.