Ignite Nebraska’s pilot group of apprentices at graduation. Pictured from left to right: Willie Nunn, Sheila Hamilton, Laura Croswell and Luke Grobeck

Cheers and applause filled Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska’s (BCBSNE) conference room on Wednesday, Oct. 5 as family, friends and coworkers gathered to celebrate the graduation of Ignite Nebraska’s first-ever apprenticeship class.

Ignite Nebraska, a new workforce development model, provides access to in-demand career opportunities through paid apprenticeships. It is designed to uplift people who are active in the workforce but unable to move past financial barriers in their current jobs.

Through the program, employers, educators and community partners work together to provide participants with the resources they need to go back to school and pursue a new career in a high-demand, high-skilled, high-paying (H3) field.

Building the program

BCBSNE began hosting the first-ever Ignite Nebraska apprenticeship class in February of 2022. Through the program, the pilot group of apprentices gained the skills they’d need for a career in information technology (IT) by working in BCBSNE’s Information Services department and learning in the classroom at Bellevue University.

Bellevue University, Ignite Nebraska’s educational partner, collaborated with BCBSNE to build a new curriculum specific to the program to ensure that what the apprentices learned in class complemented their work in the office.

“Student motivation is highest when they know that what they’re learning is instrumental to their success,” Dr. Mary Hawkins, president of Bellevue University, said. “As the apprentices are working and learning, they can see the impact on an every day, every project basis.”

Through the program, the apprentices developed skills in:

  • Office 365
  • Database programming
  • Advanced descriptive analytics
  • Power BI
  • And more

Growing local talent

Rama Kolli, BCBSNE’s chief information officer, said in addition to lifting up community members, the program helps to meet business needs.

“In Nebraska, we have more IT jobs available than skilled people to fill them,” Kolli said. “By serving as Ignite Nebraska’s first employer partner, BCBSNE has been able to grow and recruit local talent to fill these in-demand roles at our company, strengthening our organization and the community in the process.”

Receiving a full-time job offer is the last step for apprentices in completing the Ignite Nebraska program. This component is what helps set Ignite Nebraska apart, Joni Wheeler, founder of Ignite Nebraska and BCBSNE’s executive vice president of talent and enterprise solutions, said.

“For Ignite Nebraska to have a lasting impact on the apprentices, their families and the community at large, we must close the gap between providing people with the skills they need to succeed in a new career and securing their first job in the field,” Wheeler said. “You can only grow your financial stability if you’re hired after completing training. That’s why Ignite Nebraska is built on the promise of a career.”

Advancing equity

A key component of Ignite Nebraska’s mission is to advance workforce equity. In Omaha, 18.6% of Blacks and 13.3% of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2021 American Community Survey. Often times, even entry-level roles require a bachelor’s degree, which Jay Warren-Teamer, BCBSNE’s director of diversity and inclusion, said can prevent people from accessing H3 careers.

To increase access to H3 careers in alignment with Ignite Nebraska’s goals, BCBSNE focused on recruiting people at or below the poverty line in North and South Omaha who were interested in IT careers for the pilot group of apprentices.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are hallmarks of BCBSNE’s culture,” Warren-Teamer said. “It’s an honor to help pave a new path for families in our community who might not otherwise have access to H3 careers and the benefits that come with them. I look forward to BCBSNE continuing to support Ignite Nebraska and seeing the inter-generational impact of the program.”

To learn more about Ignite Nebraska, visit NebraskaBlue.com/Ignite.

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