More than 36,000 jobs have gone unfilled this year across Nebraska, the state Department of Labor reports. Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, calls the state’s workforce shortage “the most pressing economic issue in the state.” Nebraska’s community colleges are among the key institutions for addressing the challenge.
The need for action is imperative, and the focus must be statewide. Nebraska’s annual average employment increased by 14,071 during 2014-18, the state Department of Labor says, but the increases weren’t universal throughout the state. Twenty of Nebraska’s 93 counties, including Douglas and Sarpy, saw increases in total employment, but 72 counties saw a decrease. The number was unchanged in one county, Antelope.
Even with an increase in employment, Omaha faces a challenge in filling positions. “I’ve had countless conversations with business leaders and educators and know we’ve lost well over a thousand jobs in the last couple of years,” says Dana Bradford, a former chair of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “And I know we will lose thousands more if we don’t get this turned around.”
A strategy to boost workforce numbers and skills will include many components. Among them: Instruction by institutions of higher learning — universities, state colleges, community colleges. Career academies, as part of collaboration between industry and public schools. Soundly structured incentives. Competitive salaries, as much as practically possible. Quality-of-life considerations including affordable housing, strong schools, attractive public amenities and a community spirit that welcomes workers of all backgrounds.
Community colleges play a particularly important role in workforce training. We’ve noted previously the major investments by Metropolitan Community College to create its top-flight facilities for training in advanced manufacturing and other sectors. Other community colleges around the state are also contributing. At Western Nebraska Community College, for example, the John N. Harms Center provides up-to-date instruction in a range of disciplines. Mid-Plains Community College reaches out to students through its annual Skills Contest for local high school students.
Partnerships with Nebraska businesses are crucial to help community colleges meet real-world needs. “Our first-mission priority is to listen our employers,” says Greg Adams, executive director of the Nebraska Community College Foundation. That collaboration enables the colleges to “make any needed changes to our training, curriculum and equipment in the classroom to make sure we’re meeting their needs.” Industry provides vital support through scholarships and helping with equipment purchases.
Central Community College has campuses in three Nebraska cities with significant manufacturing sectors: Columbus, Grand Island and Hastings. “We really try to listen to what our industry partners have to say,” says Doug Pauley, the college’s director of training and development. “We work jointly with them on programs that meet their needs and allow students to get credit as well.”
The college has used that approach in working with the ethanol, public power and advanced manufacturing sectors, among others, Pauley told The World-Herald. Central students recently completed 200 hours of training in welding — one of the jobs most in demand in industry — in Columbus, Grand Island and Lexington. Central is a key partner in Grand Island’s well-designed Career Pathways Institute, in collaboration with local schools and industry.
Pauley described the general skill set needed in the modern economy: “Math and science continue to be more and more important. Critical thinking is what industry is looking for, so they can adapt and change to the new technology as it comes in. Communications skills continue to be important, to work together as a team.”
“Without question, industry needs are changing all the time,” Adams says, and Nebraska community colleges understand the need for adaptability. “When community colleges were created, the Legislature intended for them to be flexible.”
The obligation for the future, he says, is clear: “Being flexible and adapting to it is what we’re all about.”