LINCOLN — Nebraska employers concerned about the state of legislative affairs and workforce development have plenty to keep them up at night, said panelists speaking to a gathering of business leaders in Lincoln on Thursday.
Proposed federal rules mean their managerial employees could soon qualify for overtime; their energy costs could spike; and it could get far easier for unions to organize, or picket.
Meanwhile, some of the four-year college graduates entering the Nebraska workforce have never held a job before, four-year degree holders are fleeing the state and most of the jobs here require no more than an associate degree, attendees said.
Pro-business speakers aired these and other concerns to attendees at the Nebraska State Chamber of Commerce & Industry’s annual meeting at the Cornhusker Hotel.
If left unaddressed, these issues could have far-reaching effects on local enterprises and communities, speakers warned.
“We had an employee about six months ago that had never worked before, and he’s no longer working with us today because of a lack of skills that had nothing to do with his ability to do his job,” said Cory Epler, curriculum and instruction administrator for the Nebraska Department of Education.
Epler, himself a former teacher, held up that example as testimony that Nebraska communities, industry and education institutions need to collaborate more closely to fill the “talent pipeline.”
“That’s often a buzz phrase, but I ask our educators to think about the fact that the talent pipeline starts in our elementary classrooms,” Epler said.
Though easier said than done, fostering and maintaining a connection between a community’s economic needs and how its local school districts engage those needs is critical to building local industries across the state, Epler said.
Part of that means facing the fact that “we have some work to do in the higher education world,” said former State Sen. Greg Adams, who was also a teacher in York.
As president and executive director of Accelerate Nebraska, a statewide organization aiming to connect communities, local industries and educators, Adams hopes the 1½-year-old effort can provide high school and college graduates with the skills Nebraska employers need.
A mobile welding laboratory that visited Omaha last April is one example of the outreach that business and education advocates said is crucial to showing students what such in-demand jobs are really like.
While that effort and others like it have a reasonably clear vision for the future, less certain is the outlook for employers after President Barack Obama’s administration.
A contentious ruling from the National Labor Relations Board in August muddied the definition of an employer and held one company responsible for labor violations committed by a subcontractor.
Potentially troubling outcomes could enable unions to organize the franchise employees of a national brand like McDonald’s, said John Kirchner, director of congressional and public affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Midwest region.
A separate overtime regulation proposed by the U.S. Department of Labor could send employers scrambling to understand which managerial employees might qualify for significantly higher earnings, Kirchner said.
Those employees have traditionally been exempt from federal overtime guidelines, and the proposed rule does not take into consideration regional wage disparities.
“Employers in Nebraska are paying their employees differently than those in California or New York or in any other regional hub,” Kirchner said. “This is another big concern for businesses in the Midwest region.”