Mike Flood would like Northeast and North Central Nebraska leaders to rethink what they tell young people.
He notes that for years, communities in the region have been telling young people that to be successful, they have to leave.
The former speaker of the Nebraska Legislature, attorney and founder of Flood Communications has determined that type of mentality has partially contributed to the brain drain.
Flood notes that the out-migration of young people has led to population stagnation in Northeast and North Central Nebraska since 1990, which is common for rural America. Some statistics back his assertion.
According to UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research, from 2000 to 2010, negative net migration of people between ages 20 and 34 from Madison County was worse than similar-sized Platte and Dodge counties.
Flood, who has written the first edition of “Northeast Nebraska Growing Together,” notes in his book that for each year more than 10 percent of the 20-somethings move out, the county is burdened with a 50-year problem. That’s because these young people relocate, get married and start families and are unlikely to return.
Flood said that even though Madison County has been more fortunate than some of its neighboring counties in population retention, it has a disproportionate number of residents older than 55 and lower than the Nebraska average of residents between 20 and 34. In addition, Madison County’s average wage is about $2,000 lower than the state average, and there are 35 percent fewer skilled workers with four-year degrees in the regional work force.
The news becomes more bleak when considering that some of the biggest employers are likely to trim workforces as automation continues to take over low-skills jobs.
Flood has been sharing these figures and others in recent weeks within Norfolk and nearby communities, including Tilden, Pierce and Madison. More visits are planned.
AND HE NOT only is identifying the problems, but presenting a solution.
Flood, with the support of the Aksarben Foundation and others, hopes to transform Norfolk and Northeast Nebraska into a vibrant community where young people in their 20s and early 30s work in high-tech and other well-paying careers. The idea is to retain local young people and attract new ones.
Norfolk, especially the downtown, features a variety of restaurants and attractions such as art, theaters, river attractions and new residences that will be especially appealing. The existing efforts will continue to be enhanced.
In fact, many of these young people will not have a need for a car — at least in town because most of the amenities will be within walking distance.
Flood said the Aksarben Foundation reached out and is again focusing on being a statewide organization. With Flood’s assistance, the foundation has put together a team of about 25 people representing a cross-section of the Norfolk area who are working to address the workforce situation.
They note that Norfolk and the region must do something transformative. The city’s population will peak in 2023 unless it does something to change, Flood and others have concluded.
At the same time of this change in population, there will be some major changes happening in the economy by 2030. Automation will lead to job loss in many industries, according to McKinsey, a worldwide management consulting firm based in the U.S.
“It just happens that the top five industries on this list are Madison County’s top five industries,” Flood said.
This includes food processing, steel, food warehousing and additional reductions in agriculture and retail.
The economy will transform into fewer employees, with more robots and higher skilled employees running the robots, Flood said.
“We have to get people’s attention,” Flood said. “Right now, we have a bunch of low-skill, low-wage workers. This works in our economy right now, but as all these major industries change and automate and use robotics and all these different methods, we are going to need to change to keep these businesses here and get higher-skill, higher-wage employees.”
That means more engineers and computer software programs and less brawn-type jobs, Flood said.
NORFOLK MAYOR Josh Moenning said the public investment in the riverfront development isn’t just about the river.
“It’s about the community that comes along,” Moenning said. “This is, in a lot ways, a quality-of-life product. We’re finding out more and more that if you want to retain youth and attract newcomers, you have to have a certain level of quality of life.”
Flood agreed. Norfolk and the region need more young people.
“You need to get them some social opportunities so when Friday at 5 or 6 p.m. rolls around, they have some social opportunities. They also have chances to meet others,” he said.
And Norfolk has already enhanced its offerings in recent years with everything from the Elkhorn Valley Museum, Norfolk Arts Center, water park and other improvements, as well as the greatly expanded Norfolk Family YMCA, Flood said.