News and Press

Peter Kiewit Institute success brings push for more
Published August 27, 2012.

Photo: OLIVE


Matt Morhardt, John Oerter, and Wyatt Suddarth are hunkered down in a third-floor computer lab at Omaha's Peter Kiewit Institute. As they work, construction workers are churning through lower-level halls, trying to make progress on a 16,000-square-foot renovation that school officials hope will help transform and grow the institute's research capabilities and national identity, an issue that has been in the spotlight since 2008. The Peter Kiewit Institute grew out of a push by the Omaha business community for a local college that would aim to recruit the best and brightest students in Nebraska, provide them with a quality education and then turn them loose to land jobs with Omaha and Nebraska businesses struggling to recruit such talent. Thirteen years after opening its doors, PKI has been successful in turning out talented graduates, according to PKI data and interviews with Omaha businesspeople. More than 97 percent of all PKI graduates find employment in their field or move on to graduate school. And in many cases, there are more job and internship opportunities than there are candidates. The problem, PKI officials and businesspeople said, is that enrollment hasn't grown significantly and the institute isn't turning out enough job candidates to meet local needs. PKI officials also now believe that in order to attract more top students and faculty members, they need to transition from the original workforce development model to an institution that also does research. The institute has a complicated structure. It's a combination of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's information science and technology department and seven of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's engineering disciplines. It's located on a campus south of UNO by design. The Omaha business community lobbied for years for the University of Nebraska to launch a new engineering college in the city. “We're very concerned about our future ability to compete in the marketplace,” a business president told the Nebraska Board of Regents in 1993 in pressing for an Omaha-based engineering school. Engineering education, he said, “affects our ability to survive as a company.” After study and debate, the regents in 1994 voted down the idea. In 1995, Omaha failed to land a microchip manufacturing plant because, Micron Technology said, the city lacked high-tech workers and education plans. The regents in 1996 approved plans that later became PKI. The institute was financed through a combination of $23 million in state funds and $47 million raised through a private fundraising effort led by Walter Scott Jr., an Omaha billionaire and former chief executive of Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc. Of the private funds, $15 million was provided by the Peter Kiewit Foundation. In July, construction began on a $7.5 million renovation funded through private donations that will establish 16,000-square-feet of research space, a community center and cafe area. The banging and clanging of construction work during a recent visit to PKI's campus didn't seem to throw off the students roaming the halls. Even though it was a few weeks until the fall semester was to begin, a trio of PKI juniors — Morhardt of Omaha, a civil engineering student; Oerter of Hastings, who's studying computer science; and Suddarth of York, in architectural engineering — were in the computer lab, tweaking a software platform. It's one that they envision being used by architectural engineers and designers to turn their digital blueprints into avatar-based environments where clients can digitally mosey about a planned building and critique everything from building materials to paint colors and window placement. The students have a contract to develop the program for Science Applications International Corp., a Fortune 500 company and defense contractor based in McLean, Va. Mike McGinnis These students embody what the school and its students — in particular the recipients of the highly sought-after Scott Scholarships — have stood for since it first opened in 1998, said Mike McGinnis, who has served since 2009 as the PKI executive director. “These kids, you get them involved, create opportunities for them, then ‘boom,' they take off and you can't hold them back,” McGinnis said. “They're like wild horses and they're out of the barn and they're running fast.” Union Pacific has built a pipeline into PKI's information science and technology department. Every year, the railroad has at least 30 interns out of the PKI program and hires 12 or more graduates annually, said Karen Krabbe, assistant vice president of corporate systems. In coming years, Krabbe said, more of UP's IT staff is preparing to retire at the same time the company's IT department continues to grow. “You can never get enough good talent and good students,” Krabbe said. “Due to our impending attrition, we're going to continue to be challenged to find good new hires.” The situation is similar at ConAgra Foods, said Gerrit Schutte, ConAgra's chief information officer. ConAgra, which has about 700 full-time employees in its IT department, runs an intern program that brings in about 75 students each year. In the last two years, those have included 35 to 40 PKI interns. Of those interns, Schutte said, between 85 percent and 90 percent are offered full-time positions. “(PKI has) dramatically increased the quality of our hire, and, really, we feel the supply we get out of IS&T is outstanding,” Schutte said. “This program, in terms of IT, is really the lifeblood of our future. Without them it would be extremely hard to meet our annual demand.” Other companies have strong ties to PKI, as well. McGinnis said graduates and interns regularly find roles at Mutual of Omaha, Peter Kiewit Sons' Inc., HDR Inc., Alley Poyner Macchietto, U.S. Strategic Command, Hayneedle, Interpublic Group and payment processing giant First Data, which donated the land on which PKI was built. First Data this year has hired 12 interns, and 10 of them are from PKI. “There are so many job opportunities in our area, but there simply aren't enough students,” said Deepak Khazanchi, associate dean for academic affairs for the institute's IS&T department. According to data from UNO and UNL, enrollment at PKI has dropped from a peak of 1,738 students in fall 2007 to 1,650 in fall 2011. PKI officials say the Great Recession and a negative perception of the IT industry have hurt enrollment. “We're getting to a point in which we are basically trying to go to high schools and letting them know that IT is not just about programming. It's more than that. It's exciting. It's more than just a nerdy discipline,” said Hesham Ali, the dean of the College of Information Science & Technology. To start the 2012 school year, IS&T enrollment at PKI is up roughly 7 percent, while the engineering disciplines remain flat. In response, PKI is focusing more resources on recruiting students from Iowa, Kansas, North and South Dakota and Minnesota, as well as recruiting internationally. McGinnis has been charged with raising enrollment to 2,700, an increase of more than 60 percent, by 2020, with an emphasis on landing more high-performing students who would qualify for the Scott Scholarships. Those scholarships cover university fees, books and room and board, and allow recipients to participate in special events, like social gatherings with business leaders and etiquette seminars. Those students must have an ACT score of 30 or higher and a 3.5 grade-point average. McGinnis said that as more donations boost that program, PKI will be able to attract more top talent. But in the meantime, total numbers are an issue. “Yes, I'm concerned about enrollments, I'd like to see them up,” McGinnis said. “We're not losing ground across the board, but we're not making up ground, either.” Another of PKI's growth pillars that has been slow to develop is its shift to becoming a strong research operation. The institute continues to implement changes the regents required in 2008 to shift PKI to a nationally recognized, research-based education model. McGinnis, a retired Army brigadier general who previously served as the executive director of the Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University, was hired to lead those efforts. Since McGinnis came on-board, PKI has increased federal research funds from about $5.5 million in 2009 to about $9.8 million last year. By 2020, PKI's goal: to surpass $25 million. The transition from what McGinnis called a “workforce development” model of teaching students and preparing them for careers to a more advanced, research-based operation has hit a “little bit of a delay,” he acknowledged. The Washington Advisory Group, which was hired to make recommendations about the strategic future of PKI, reported to the regents in 2008 that the institute had become a “poster child” for its “commitment to the local business community.” But that commitment also had hampered PKI's development on a national stage, the report said, because of the lack of focus on research and technology transfer. “Initiatives like PKI that have attempted to meld the intellectual firepower of universities with the bottom-line focus of business have encountered the inevitable clash of cultures,” the report said. It also said an infusion of “superstar” research professors would “greatly accelerate the establishment of a world-class center of excellence.” The delayed shift toward the direction recommended, McGinnis said, stems from PKI professors not accustomed to performing research. “The first 10 years, we spent our efforts building high-quality academic programs,” he said. “But the people who were hired were never hired explicitly to ... have sort of this dual career of teaching, academics and research.” “Now, if you go to any upper-tier, upper-third university in the United States, (research) is expected. It's expected because if you are not putting into practice the things that you are teaching the students ... you are not at the cutting edge.” PKI now is actively seeking additional professors who are established researchers. The goal, McGinnis said, is to bring in educators who can serve as mentors to small teams of professors without research backgrounds. The institute also this month hired James Taylor, 42, as PKI's research coordinator. Taylor, who spent 20 years in the Air Force as a developmental engineer and now is pursuing a computer engineering doctorate at UNL, will be responsible for analyzing PKI's research data while also finding research opportunities with businesses and organizations. And with that research, McGinnis expects PKI to prosper. “This is about solving problems, creating intellectual property, starting businesses, small businesses that grow into big businesses,” he said. “This is about getting things done, and doing it the right way. It is not easy.” The juniors bunkered in the computer lab say it's doable. “You invest in us, we go out and get a good education, get good jobs and make more opportunities for people in the future,” Oerter said. “It's only a matter of time for PKI to be more well-known.”

Back to list