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Employees and Employers

Reinvigorating Omaha’s workforce development efforts is taking a two-track path: continuing to train workers that businesses need but at the same time aiming the training at career growth.

Omaha is one of 22 sites in the country with a grant from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. The fund so far has $23 million in donations from foundations, among others, that is used as seed money for regional organizations that have committed an additional $100 million.

The national goal is to develop job training that meets the needs of both employees and employers in industries that are critical to local economies.

In Omaha the program is run through the Greater Omaha Chamber. Its first training program, in mid-2008, trained workers for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska and Mutual of Omaha.

Othello Meadows, executive director of the Omaha program, said one aim is to avoid training for low-paying jobs that have no future. If the jobs being offered don’t pay a living wage, the Omaha Workforce Funding Collaborative is not interested in training workers for them, Meadows said. The same is true of jobs that may pay well but have no hope of career growth. “We don’t do anything unless there is an identifiable career path—room for advancement,“ he added.

The Omaha effort is trying to create a strategy that works for a variety of businesses and job-seekers, he said. It has trained workers for positions as varied as welding, customer service and ophthalmic assistants.

Lori McLaughlin, clinical manager at Midwest Eye Care, knows first-hand the value of the ophthalmic assistants program. As one of the trainers for the program, she also hired a couple of its graduates.

“We were looking for a better pool of people to hire from,“ she said. “The training gave us that by providing us with candidates who were already familiar with our field. It made the transition to work so much smoother.“

Brady Petersen completed the ophthalmic assistant program at the end of 2009. “I had no previous knowledge of the ophthalmic field,“ he said, “so the training was a great opportunity. It gave me a good idea of what all is involved.“

Petersen is now employed at Midwest Eye Care. “I was able to start out ahead of the game and I would definitely encourage others to participate in one of the programs.“

The collaborative is particularly interested in helping five Omaha employment sectors as part of the Chamber’s economic development effort: financial services; health; information technology; transportation, distribution, warehousing and logistics; and advanced manufacturing and trades.

The program works with Metropolitan Community College to build an individual curriculum for each job-training field. Another goal is to create a more welcoming, integrated system so that agencies at the two Omaha sites serving job-seekers work together to help people rather than taking a silo approach, concentrating only on their own specific service areas, Meadows said.

The Greater Omaha Chamber’s partners in the program are Metropolitan Community College, the Tri-County Workforce Investment Board and the United Way of the Midlands. The Tri-County (Douglas, Sarpy and Washington counties) board controls federal worker training funds.

Those four are providing $600,000 over three years for the collaborative, which also is getting $450,000 over three years from the national fund.

Dana Washington: Leading by Example

She’ll humbly dismiss the comparison, but, the truth is, Omaha’s Dana Washington has Wonder Woman outdone. Both are dedicated to positively impacting their communities, but Washington is the only one with a full-time job, three children and zero access to an invisible jet.

A lifelong Omahan and graduate of Creighton University’s School of Law, Washington serves as assistant general counsel at Mutual of Omaha. Her passion, beyond family and career, is “working with children and helping to expand educational opportunities for young people, especially those who don’t have access.“

Washington currently serves on the board of Duchesne Academy (her high school alma mater) and an Omaha Public Schools accountability task force. She’s also devoted her time to the Black Student Catholic Scholarship Fund, the Child Saving Institute and Project Manhood, a group working to mold boys into “authentic men.“ She is now working to organize a youth learning expedition to Boston, Mass., a seat of American history. “What better way to help encourage citizenship than by helping young people really understand history and love it and appreciate it.“ Depending on funding, she plans to take five to ten fifth graders during Omaha Public School’s spring recess, March 21-25, 2011.

With no budget to realize her ambition, Washington reached out to people she met through Leadership Omaha, a program of the Greater Omaha Chamber aimed at developing transformational community leaders. “Someone is going to help me with grant writing,“ she said. “It’s a big project, but I now have some contacts, so hopefully this will really happen for kids in our city—to travel some place they may never see otherwise.“

Despite a full professional and philanthropic workload, this wonder woman still finds time to enjoy the perks of living in Omaha—from attending touring Broadway shows to the annual lineup of free offerings, like Jazz on the Green and the Summer Arts Festival. That’s not all the avid reader appreciates. “Our libraries. We have the most fantastic libraries here!“

Kori Reed: Fighting Hunger from Omaha

Omaha’s Kori Reed has four children of her own—and millions more on her mind every day. As executive director of the ConAgra Foods® Foundation, her overriding focus is child hunger; her mission and the mission of the Foundation is the pursuit of sustainable solutions. Reed joined the monumental effort in 2006, transferring to Omaha from ConAgra’s refrigerated business unit in Naperville, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

“With four children, we find this to be a nice community to raise our family with access to strong schools, arts, youth sports, cultural activities and more,“ said Reed. “Omaha is a vibrant city, the home of one of North America’s leading food companies. And, compared to my friends in Chicago, we are in a modern city with less traffic!“

Upon arriving in Omaha, Reed and her husband attended Omaha Executive Institute, a program of the Greater Omaha Chamber offered exclusively to senior level executives (who are new to their position or new to the community) and their spouses. Since 1988, it has been an effective way to acquaint newcomers with the resources and opportunities Omaha has to offer.

“Having moved a number of times, and knowing how long it can take to get to know a community, we really appreciated a structured but fun way to get to know other people and the depth of the community, as well as its assets and areas for improvement,“ said Reed.

After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a master’s in communication, she worked at Lincoln’s Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant. From there, her career took her to Danville, Va.; Akron, Ohio; and Naperville, Ill.

Now in Omaha, she is determined to care for children—masses of them—both here and beyond.

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