Tony Veland Making A Difference At AIM Institute
by Leo Adam Biga
The North Omaha native grew up in a large family of modest means. Early on, he determined his athletic abilities would be his entry to college. Despite his Benson High School football team’s struggles, he was gifted enough to catch the eye of Nebraska coaches. A scholarship offer followed. Recruited as an option quarterback, he suffered an injury that prompted a switch to defense, Veland ended up starting at safety for NU’s back-to-back national championship teams in 1994-1995 and being selected in the NFL draft. He won a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos before ending his career with the Carolina Panthers.
He worked as a financial adviser and a part-time coach until joining AIM as business sales manager for its CareerLink jobs platform, which it has since sold. He then did community engagement work before pivoting to business development. “It’s all about building relationships, trying to get people aware of the mission and the programs so that we can partner to solve some of the issues in the community.”
One issue is a dearth of skilled IT workers. Tech proficiency and fluency is increasingly needed in the workplace. With Nebraska lacking in that labor pool, employers often look outside the state to fill tech jobs. “We are doing our best to try to combat that. Tech is here and it is not going anywhere,” Veland said.
” People need to learn these skills because as time goes by, things are only going to get more technical. If you are not learning some type of technology skills, I do not care who you are or what you are doing, you are going to be left behind. Tech touches every industry. It is just a reality.”
” Our motto is to build a strong and diverse tech community through career development, education, and outreach. We are trying to solve the problem for the future and the immediate needs of our local businesses.
AIM also has programs for adults
“Individuals transitioning out of other careers may see opportunities in tech because there are so many jobs available. We provide a way for them to get into it without necessarily having to go through four years of schooling and taking on debt. That is our way of expediting their path into the field.”
Veland’s sports branded name and legacy has helped to get him into some spaces to promote AIM’s work and to seek partners in carrying it out.
“I have always been somebody that strives to give back to the community and intentionally uses their platform in positive ways to promote noble causes and uplift people. It has always been about empowerment. And generally when people know you are doing something good, they are willing to jump on board.”
Employers and AIM Institute share a mission of building the tech pipeline to address the talent gap and stop the brain drain. “Employers have their own tech needs. They should understand that the more they can help us serve our mission long-term, the more it is going to benefit them as well. They cannot just sit and wait on nonprofits like us to solve the talent issue. We are all in this together.
We cannot stay in separate silos and think this problem is going to solve itself. ”Building the pipeline requires teaching people the necessary skills.
“A lot of employers need people with intermediate or advanced skills right now. Since they are not finding that level of expertise here, they are recruiting out of state. Now that working remotely is a reality, it opens the doors for employers to look outside Nebraska. That comes with a catch. Hiring somebody from New York or California means paying the higher salaries they expect.
“Long-term, it makes sense for employers to help us build a pipeline here with local talent.”
Veland reminds employers of Nebraskans’ strong work ethic and the pride and loyalty that come with investing locally. If the talent pool is to grow, it needs to start with youth. Steering more kids into STEM is key moving forward. That means getting their attention.
Said Veland, “What it comes down to is how do you make careers in technology is sexy or attractive to these kids. That’s the part of the equation we continue to work on. But we do an excellent job from a programming standpoint of stimulating interest and showing them tech experiences they have not had. It definitely helps the kids to get excited about tech. But you also must get them past what they think their self-limitations are and their ideas of what tech is because it is not just coding or programming.”
Overcoming access issues is an AIM institute’s priority.
“Our approach is to meet people where they are. A lot of the schools We work with high free and reduced lunch populations. Some kids do not have internet at home and some schools do not have many tech resources. These kids see tech as only video games, phones with cameras or iPads they have fun with. We need to change the mindset to where they see themselves as not just tech consumers but tech creatives and entrepreneurs.
“We have them fly drones and tell them they can become a drone pilot. We tell them about the explosion in eSports and how full college scholarships are being given to young people who play them. We show them paths to have careers in tech.
AIM institute provides a fantastic opportunity for people who look like me and grew up in low-income zip codes to get that exposure and access to resources where they can learn the needed skills to make that a reality.”
AIM programs are free. Veland said it is all about removing barriers to participation. Corporate and nonprofit partners step up to fund scholarships for training. More sponsors are needed. Veland emphasizes AIM’s adult classes are for the faint of heart.
“These are accelerated classes. They are not easy. Individuals must be dedicated to putting in the work. But it is worth it because you graduate with skills to get into good paying jobs.”
The same way he advocates people investing in themselves; he advocates employers investing in the community. The more companies and organizations have a presence, he said, the more connection there is between them and prospective job candidates.
Veland identifies with a cohort of emerging Black leaders in Omaha charged with raising the tide for all ships. The more spaces these leaders occupy in business, education, government, human services, faith, the arts, he said, the bigger the difference they make.
“It is to the point where so many people are doing so many good things you cannot ignore it anymore. They are no longer one offs. My contemporaries are doing some amazing things and having significant impact on the city. Individually and collectively, we are inspiring the next generation, and I love it because it inspires me, too.
A father of two adult children,Tony and Arianna, Veland is the product of mentors who impacted him, his high school football coach Lonnie Tapp and his College Football Hall of Fame coach at NU, Tom Osborne. He said his own servant leadership style takes after theirs.