Nebraska facing skilled labor shortage

Despite a low unemployment level in Nebraska, the State Chamber of Commerce says employers are having difficulty finding skilled labor. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News)
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December 17, 2013 - 6:30am

The Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce says a number of business owners across Nebraska are reporting a lack of skilled labor in the marketplace. This shortage is costly to both businesses and communities.

Every fall the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce holds special meetings called “fall forums.” This year, more than 400 businesses from across the state attended the forums.

“Omaha to Scottsbluff. In size you might see somebody from ConAgra on one end and Curley’s Machine Shop in Kimball on the other,” said Richard Baier, executive vice president of the Nebraska State Chamber.

Baier said as part of the forums, business owners were asked to fill out a survey about what factors could be limiting their potential growth.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Richard Baier, the executive vice president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, says a shortage of skilled workers across the state is slowing down economic growth. Baier says in addition to career centers for high school students, businesses should also reach out to retiring military personnel as a means of finding skilled labor.

Of the 400 who took the survey, Baier said, “More than 25 percent said a lack of available skilled labor was one of the things that is limiting my growth potential.”

Skilled workers are those who’ve received specific training to perform a specific job function. Even though Nebraska’s unemployment rate is low compared to the national average, 3.9 percent compared to 7 percent, Baier said trouble finding qualified workers is affecting numerous industries.

“We see it across the board in all areas. We see primarily manufacturing and IT and healthcare as sort of the three biggies that are driving that process, but we see it in just about every business we talk to,” Baier explained.

He went on to say the lack of skilled labor doesn’t just have a negative impact on a business’ bottom line, it hurts communities as well.

“You start to look at places like Columbus in particular. They have anywhere right now between 500-600 unfilled jobs in Columbus. If you can imagine what 500 really good paying jobs--mostly in the skills and manufacturing area-- are paying, it would be a significant impact on the local community,” Baier said.

Ernie Goss, an economics professor at Creighton University in Omaha, said the shortage of skilled labor stems from poor education, resulting in students who are unprepared to enter the job market.

“It’s not just in terms of specific skills, it’s general skills, what we economists call general skills. In other words, just knowing how to convert a fraction to a percentage, as simple as that is. We’re not doing a very good job in America of providing that education,” Goss said.

According to Goss and other economic experts, if the labor force can’t adapt to the demands of employers, some companies may turn to more automation, eliminating some human positions altogether.

When asked how are workers supposed to adapt, Goss said the answer was easy.

“The best way to obtain a solid income, a life of good position that brings you enjoyment, is to become well educated. It’s not just staying in school; it’s getting a good education while you’re there,” Goss said.

But Goss, a long-time college professor, was quick to add, “A university education is not what we all need. The idea that every person needs a university education and a bachelor’s degree is nonsense.”

This idea, that one size doesn’t fit all students, has prompted some school districts across the country to establish career centers--places where high school students are taught specific skills so they’ll be better equipped to enter the workforce immediately after graduating.

Photo by Ryan Robertson, NET News

Dr. Steve Joel is the Lincoln Public Schools Superintendent. Dr. Joel was instrumental in launching a career center in Grand Island, and is working towards the launch of a career center in Lincoln. Joel says the LPS facility will offer morning and afternoon classes. Joel says if the demand is there, the career center could conceivably offer evening courses as well.

Lincoln Public School Superintendent Steve Joel has already helped start a career center in Grand Island. Now, he’s trying to bring one to Lincoln.

“We’ve been working on it for about two years now. We’ve gone out and visited probably a dozen different [career centers],” Joel said.

The LPS Career Center will accommodate around 1200 students. Joel said after attending their home high schools for a half day to complete core courses, the students attending the career center will then travel to its proposed site on the Southeast Community College campus to finish their studies.

There will be distinct career categories students can choose from, including Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Health Sciences, as well as Business Marketing and Management.

Joel said each main category will offer several different career paths, allowing for greater diversification within a given industry.

“Folks in the community are going to be able to come to us and say, ‘We just attracted this particular industry and we need these kinds of skills,’" Joel explained.  "And we’re going to be able to work with them and say, ‘Yeah we can respond to that.'

“We’re going to approach it in a very agile manner, because we want to be able to change as conditions change,” Joel said.

Economist Ernie Goss said concepts like the LPS Career Center can also be adapted to help people currently looking for jobs who may find themselves with the wrong skills.

“You’re thinking you’re through [with education] at 24? No, it’s just beginning. At 34, at 44, at 54—you’re still going to be coming back and re-educating yourself. That’s what businesses need, that’s what individuals need, that’s what families need,” Goss said.

But what the career center needs is $13.5 million. That money is part of a bond issue going before Lincoln voters in February. If approved, Joel said the LPS Career Center could begin teaching students in fall of 2015.

While it may help Nebraska’s skilled worker shortage one day, for now, Goss said people looking for work need to do whatever they can to make sure they have the right skills.



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