Nebraska faces workforce challenge

Employees inspect bricks at Endicott Clay Products Company. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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July 19, 2019 - 6:45am

Nebraska has more jobs available than people qualified to fill them. Businesses and state government are trying to find solutions to attract and keep more workers in Nebraska. 


On a sweltering July day, the temperature outside the Endicott Clay Products brick factory approaches 100 degrees. Inside, as Endicott CEO Ryan Parker shows a visitor around, there are parts that are hotter still.

“In this plant, we have two tunnel kilns. This is the exit end of both kilns. You can look into this peep and you can actually see the fire. So we’re burning anywhere from around 2,000 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit,” Parker said.   

That’s inside the ovens used for making the fancy bricks that adorn buildings and pavements across the country. Just over 300 people work in this factory, and Parker says he needs more.

“It is, right now, by far and away the number one problem that we have as a company is trying to find people to come work here. If I could, I would hire 30 people today,” he said.

Parker says those jobs start at $12.25 an hour, and with overtime, a new employee right out of high school could make about $40,000 a year. But still, they’re hard to fill.

Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says there are similar problems across Nebraska. 

“As I travel the state, and certainly in my Chamber role, I visit with every business from Omaha to Scottsbluff, their number one issue is finding qualified workforce to fill the jobs that they have,” Slone said.

Last month, the state labor department reported there were more than 68,000 jobs open in Nebraska.  David Drodz, research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs, says a lot of that has to do with the huge baby-boom generation retiring.

“There’s not as many younger folks moving into the workforce at age 25 relative to those aging out of the workforce, so to speak, at age 65 here over the next 10 years,” Drodz said.

Nebraska's working age population is declining

Bryan Seck, workforce development director for the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development, says the shortage of people to fill available jobs also reflects the strengthening of the economy since the 2008 recession.

“If this were 2008 and we had higher unemployment, I would be thinking about ‘How do we get people back to work?  Let’s get ‘em back to work.’ In 2019, everybody’s already working,” Seck said.

Last month, Nebraska’s unemployment rate was 3 percent – tenth lowest in the nation. In Lincoln, it was even lower. But Seck says that doesn’t necessarily mean everybody’s prospering.

“We’re still seeing persistent poverty. Lincoln Public Schools now is about 43 percent free/reduced-price lunch. That’s a function of people working multiple part-time jobs,” Seck said. 

Seck says people struggling to make ends meet can overlook the advantage of switching to a full-time job that may not pay much more at first but can lead to something better. But he says his goal is to help people move from part-time jobs to full-time careers.

He does that by working with organizations like ResCare, a federally-funded program that helps connect people and pay for training opportunities. Nicole Overman of Lincoln says ResCare helped her after she got laid off from a Verizon call center two years ago.

“I didn’t want to go back to customer service. I didn’t like the idea of just kind of being stuck to a phone and just kind of sitting all day. So I really wanted to get back into the health care field. So this gave me an opportunity to do that,” Overman said.

Overman is now training to be a physical therapist assistant and says that same aging baby-boom population that’s creating a worker shortage will have an increasing demand for those services.

Nebraska's population age mix is changing

Changing workforce needs affect people in all sorts of fields. Leon Holloway, human relations manager at Duncan Aviation, says rapidly changing technology adds to the challenge.

Holloway says one solution is more recruiting aimed at different types of people.

“I’m talking about women in aviation. There’s a Hispanic group that is unrepresented with regards to aviation. African Americans. Again, you talk about those refugees, those asylees that are out there,”  Holloway said.

“We can’t limit ourselves to the type of talent we are trying to get. We do want that skilled talent, that skilled mechanic. But we also need to be able to tap into those unrepresented groups to actually see what they have to offer to our open positions as well,” he added.

The challenge of filling jobs can be particularly tough in rural areas like Endicott, about 75 miles southwest of Lincoln. Endicott Clay Products’ Parker describes a recent interview he conducted with a ceramic engineer for a technical director’s position.

“We got about two minutes into the conversation and he goes ‘I just have some pretty strong reservations about moving to rural Nebraska.’ And I said ‘Well, I don’t want to waste your time or mine. If that’s a deal-breaker, then I wish you well.’ And so we ended the interview right there. It’s probably the shortest interview I’ve ever given in my life,” Parker said. 

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts acknowledged the challenge, in both rural and urban areas, at an economic development summit this week.

“We are challenged about getting people to hire. It’s one of the common themes when you talk to businesses all across the state. In fact, the Department of Labor did a survey and it showed that 73 percent of businesses say this is one of the biggest issues is finding the right people to hire,” Ricketts said.

To try and address that, Ricketts unveiled a new website, thegoodlifeiscalling.com, that tries to attract people to Nebraska.  Along with information on jobs and communities, the site features a slick introductory video.

“If you crave wide-open spaces, if you want your neighbors to be your friends, if you know the value of an honest day’s work, if you aspire to make a difference in your community, your state, your world, the Good Life is calling,” an announcer says, before concluding “The Good Life isn’t just a state. It’s a state of mind.”

Whether enough people share that state of mind may have a big effect on how the state fares in the years to come.

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