On the surface, Nebraska's jobs environment appears sterling.
The state in September continued to boast the nation's second-lowest unemployment rate, behind only North Dakota. More people have jobs now than during March 2008, the start of the Great Recession in Nebraska. And the state is seeing its labor force expand consistently.
But look a little closer, and data shows that one of Nebraska's biggest jobs concerns is quickly becoming whether the state can create enough jobs to keep pace with the number of people choosing to migrate to Nebraska or to stay here because of the state's strong economy.
It's a balancing act that labor officials are optimistic will work in Nebraska's favor, because a growing labor force can help in recruiting and retaining businesses.
According to raw data (not seasonally adjusted) from the Nebraska Department of Labor, 959,607 Nebraskans in September were on nonfarm payroll, working in jobs in the private and public sectors. In March 2008, that figure was 956,724.
That's an improvement of 2,883 — a figure that, again, appears positive.
But when compared to the significant growth of the Nebraska labor force, the state's job gains haven't kept pace as they did before the recession. The labor force numbered 1,018,343 in September, up from 992,346 in March 2008, or an increase of nearly 26,000 people who are counted as employed, looking for work or collecting unemployment benefits from the state.
The September labor force hit its highest mark ever, signaling that fewer Nebraskans are leaving the state's strong economy and more outside job seekers are being attracted by Nebraska businesses with stronger operations than their out-of-state peers, said David Drozd, a research coordinator for the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Public Affairs Research.
“For (Nebraska) to have domestic in-migration is a pretty big phenomenon,” he said. “We're keeping more of our people and, given the natural growth of the population, there's a bigger pool of 16-year-olds coming in than people retiring or leaving the labor force.”
So far this year, Nebraska has seen its best overall net gain in population growth since 1996, Drozd said.
Those gains, however, have been both good and bad, Drozd said. Nebraska's unemployment rate has held steady at either 3.9 percent or 4 percent for the majority of 2012, and those hovering results are a signal that Nebraska employers haven't increased employment enough to drive down joblessness.
A big factor in that trend, Drozd said, is the continued presence of older employees in the workforce. Since many Nebraska workers saw their retirement investments take a hit during the financial crisis, workers who would have retired or would be close to retiring are remaining in the workforce.
According to nonadjusted data from the Nebraska Department of Labor, the industries that haven't kept pace with job growth since the recession are trade, transportation and utilities; manufacturing; and the information sector.
Since early 2008, the trade, transportation and utilities sector has shed more than 9,000 jobs, manufacturing has shed nearly 8,000, and information-providing firms, including broadcast and telecommunications firms, have decreased employment by 2,700 positions.
The industries that have picked up that slack during Nebraska's recovery have been education and health services; leisure and hospitality, which includes hotel and restaurant employees; government; and professional and business services, which includes most people in corporate positions. Private education and health care employers have led the way, adding more than 8,000 jobs, with leisure and hospitality chipping in an additional 5,500 positions over the period.
The manufacturing job losses are a reflection of manufacturers becoming more efficient and better using their current workforce, said Cathy Lang, the Nebraska Labor Commissioner and Director of the Department of Economic Development.
Leisure and hospitality, meanwhile, held steady throughout most of the recession, as more Nebraskans vacationed in their home state, keeping business for hotels and restaurants relatively strong, Lang said. And the private education and health care job levels are a reflection of a national trend in health care providers and related companies increasing employment levels, she said.
Overall, Nebraska employers added nearly 4,800 jobs in September as the state's unemployment rate retreated below 4 percent for the fourth time this year. The rate clocked in Friday at 3.9 percent for September, as the total labor force grew by more than 3,500 people and 1,200 fewer Nebraskans were counted as unemployed, according to results adjusted to account for seasonal changes in hiring.
“We have not seen the rate below 4 percent this often since 2008, prior to the recession,” Lang said.
In the Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area, the jobless rate dipped dramatically to 3.8 percent from 4.3 percent. The improvement, though, was more a reflection of a shrinking labor force in as the metro area. It decreased by nearly 4,500 people — 2,500 fewer Omahans were counted as unemployed and about 2,000 fewer individuals were counted as employed.
Those figures, unlike the state figures, are not seasonally adjusted.
Iowa's unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent from 5.5 percent in August. The state's total labor force — the measure of people either with work, seeking work or collecting unemployment — fell by 4,400. Meanwhile, 4,200 fewer Iowans appeared on nonfarm payrolls, but the total number of unemployed Iowans decreased to 85,800 from 89,700 from August to September, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The drop in the September jobless rate was welcome news, but we are still cautious about the job market,” said Teresa Wahlert, director of Iowa Workforce Development. “The employment numbers continued to depict a slow and uneven recovery.”
In Nebraska, Lang focuses on the growth of Nebraska's overall labor force.
Since Nebraska's low unemployment rate is near what officials consider “full employment,” the continued growth of the labor pool is important in being able to attract new businesses that will consider whether Nebraska has the necessary talent available, Lang said. For economic development officials, it's one of the most important numbers they track on a month-to-month basis.
“If there are negatives in the past, it is current or potential employers asking 'do you have the talent to meet the needs of the jobs we want to create in Nebraska?'” Lang said. “The strength of our economy has attracted more people to Nebraska and kept more of our young people in Nebraska, and kept them engaged.”
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