Eric Johnson

ERIC JOHNSON sits in his office at the Lifelong Learning Center at Northeast Community College on Wednesday afternoon. As the associate vice president of center for enterprise, Johnson helps area employers with recruitment and onboarding strategies.

Molly Harris grew up in Pierce, but as a high school student she wanted to live in Phoenix.

“I didn’t really have any idea (where to live),” she said. “I visited Phoenix when I was in high school and I thought that would be cool.”

So she and her fiancé Shane White moved there last year to work for his uncle, who owns a business in the area.

It didn’t take long for them to realize Phoenix wasn’t quite where they wanted to live long-term, she said. They moved back to Pierce about two months ago after spending nearly a year in Arizona.

“At the time we didn’t think we wanted kids, but after we had discussed it more over the summer, we thought, ‘Yeah we want kids, but we don’t want to be away from both sets of our parents,’ ” she said. “Now that I’ve been (in Phoenix), it’s not for me.”

Changing demographics

Harris, 23, now works as a store manager at a local retailer, a position where she has numerous years of experience. As an experienced younger worker, Harris is in an enviable demographic that employers across all industries are looking to attract.

There are an estimated 58,000 job openings in Nebraska — but that number could be closer to 80,000, said Bryan Slone, Nebraska Chamber of Commerce president.

Attracting and keeping workers is one of the most pressing issues Nebraska faces, Slone said. He travels about three days a week to work with businesses throughout the state. Although the Nebraska chamber works with about 1,200 members across all industries, one similarity employers have is the worker shortage.

“It’s amazing to me that amongst our members across the state — even beyond our members, just communities at large — workforce tends to be the number one issue no matter what,” he said. “It’s been a big deal.”

One of the main drivers of this issue is changing demographics, said David Drozd, research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Over the next 15 years, the aging baby boomer population will be slowly displaced by younger workers, but there aren’t as many younger workers to fill the gaps.

“The number of prime age workforce is going to go down for the next 15 years or so. In 2032 that’s going to bottom,” he said. “The prime age workforce will decline by 2,400 people, a loss of 13 percent.”

Drozd estimates that the declining workforce will continue to drive up labor costs.

“Employers are just going to have a smaller pool to pick from,” he said. “When employers invest in a worker … they’re going to want to retain those workers, and the easiest way is to pay them better.”

The fact that businesses in other states are competing for workers makes it even harder to build a workforce, Drozd said, especially considering that Nebraska’s wages skew lower compared to other areas.

“Our wages are not super competitive,” Drozd said. “We have a low cost of living and that helps the dollar stretch further, but for similar work you can get better compensation in Kansas City.”

Businesses across Nebraska are already feeling the pressure. Between 2018 and 2019, research from UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research office indicates that there will be more Nebraskans age 75 and older than 5 and under for the first time in history, Drozd said.

Area employers are finding it challenging to attract workers, especially with a statewide unemployment rate of 2.8 percent, said Kiera Fisher, human resource and special projects director at McMill CPAs and Advisors in Norfolk.

“If someone is qualified, they have their pick of almost any position,” Fisher said. “There are tons of employers hiring and not enough to fill those positions. Retaining those staff members is key.”

This issue is affecting the entire state, Slone said.

“It affects our economy, it affects our ability to grow, it affects our revenues,” he said. “As a state, if you want to know why taxes are so high, it’s because our population’s growing really, really slowly.”

While this situation is also playing out for employers in Lincoln and Omaha, cities in the greater Nebraska area could be feeling more profound effects, Slone said. But these communities also have unique features to offer, which he believes they can leverage in attracting younger workers.

“(Smaller communities) may be feeling the pain a little bit more, but I think they have the most opportunity, actually,” he said.

Community solutions

Younger workers aren’t just looking for good jobs, but high quality of life, Slone said, which communities in greater Nebraska should emphasize.

“When you’re in Norfolk, the quality of life is pretty good: the cost of living is low, you have a great community college out here, you have things to do … (and) a young person can come to Norfolk and make an impact in the community,” he said.

For example, Pierce is one of the main communities where Harris and White have been house-shopping. The town has a population of around 1,700 and is 20 minutes northwest of Norfolk.

Already knowing what the area has to offer is a major factor in their decision, Harris said.

“We know a lot of the people here … we both grew up here and know the school’s good,” she said.

Community feel is also important to her when it comes to settling down somewhere. After church every Sunday, she likes chatting with friends and neighbors — something she missed when living in Phoenix.

Young workers also are looking for opportunities for advancement in the workplace, which aligns well with McMill leaders’ priorities, Fisher said.

“The partners within the (McMill) companies are big on employee growth. They want employees who would like to grow, take on more responsibilities,” she said. “They definitely are very good about offering that through training, mentorship, different things like that. … They’re really good about getting employee feedback as well.”

McMill human resources managers also try to make the company stand out in various ways to attract and retain workers. In addition to major aspects like employee benefits, it’s also about the little details to make workers feel appreciated, Fisher said.

Addressing the workforce issue is unique in that solutions can be found within community efforts, whereas other business-related issues might be reliant on legislative changes, Slone said. Attractions like vibrant downtowns and recreation options can show people the rich experiences that can be gained from living in Nebraska.

This challenge also offers the opportunity for collaboration among different organizations. Eric Johnson, associate vice president of the Center for Enterprise at Northeast Community College, works with businesses to help them recruit employees.

He said retention efforts have been strongest when different entities work together.

“In my mind it’s not just the employers’ job to recruit young professionals back — we all have a vested interest in maintaining and growing our own cities and counties and state,” he said. “Some initiatives I hear being discussed right now are more regionally focused, and I think those conversations make a lot of sense.”

Another effective tactic is communicating local opportunities to students at a younger age, he said.

“What I’m sensing is that local communities are doing a better job of educating youth of opportunities that exist,” he said. “You’re seeing that at high school, the career academy ... I think that’s helping.”

Drozd said focusing on keeping people in smaller communities is important.

“What I tell groups is to focus on keeping young people … promoting local college attendance, promoting Northeast, and then the whole pipeline of jobs,” Drozd said. “If they go away, the likelihood they come back diminishes.”

Johnson, however, sees it differently: people who grew up in smaller communities and leave can bring new ideas and experiences to the area if they return.

“I’ve noticed eight or nine years ago a movement of young professionals moving back, re-establishing roots here,” he said. “I think that’s benefiting not only the state but employers and manufacturers and industry along the way.”

The key is to make sure Nebraska cities are appealing to workers, and that community leaders are making connections to draw them back, Johnson said, ultimately enriching the community.

“I don’t think students leaving is in essence a bad thing,” he said. “The young population continues to challenge (communities) and push the envelope — I think they’re pushing it in the right direction.”

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