Sarpy County’s population growth rate the past 28 years has more than doubled Douglas County’s and is being fueled by people of all ages and all races, with the county’s non-white and Hispanic populations doubling or tripling depending on the age group.
Those were among data presented by David Drozd, research coordinator at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Research. Drozd spoke at the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce’s annual State of the County symposium May 28 at Bellevue University.
Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, told the gathering the greatest challenge to Nebraska’s economic health is not high property taxes but a workforce too small to meet employment needs.
Other presenters included Andy Rikli, superintendent of the Papillion La Vista Community Schools, who described his district’s efforts to prepare students for the future economy; and Angela Cooper, director of diversity and inclusion at Mutual of Omaha, who stressed the economic benefits of racially diverse workforces.
Drozd, who is well known as an analyst of U.S. Census data, said greater Omaha generally is experiencing strong and consistent population gains, but the trend is being led by Sarpy County.
“When it come to (population) growth in the metro, Sarpy County is the leader by far, there’s just no doubt about that,” Drozd said. “If you’re a home builder, full speed ahead.”
Drozd presented figures showing Sarpy County’s population grew 79 percent between 1990 and 2018, compared to 35.6 percent for Douglas County.
Sarpy County’s current population, according to the latest Census figures, is 184,459, compared to Douglas County’s 566,880.
The total population of the Omaha metro area — defined as Douglas, Sarpy, Washington, Cass and Saunders counties in Nebraska and Harrison, Pottawattamie and Mills counties in Iowa — is expected to top one million in the next four or five years, Drozd said, up from 865,000 in 2010.
Reaching that milestone, Drozd said, will likely cause a significant increase in employment demand as Omaha lands on the radar screens of national companies that restrict their searches to metro areas with populations greater than one million.
A chart reflecting information from the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census showed that 40.4 percent of the people migrating to Sarpy County are aged 25 to 34.
Drozd warned a cloud hovers over this generally bright picture in the form of Nebraska’s “prime-age workforce” which is defined as people between the ages of 25 and 64. That population peaked in 2018 with 965,000 people, he said, but is expected to decline to 950,000 by 2028.
“If you’re having difficulties finding workers right now, this suggests it’s not going to get any easier,” he said.
Slone, too, stressed the workforce challenge facing Sarpy County and Nebraska. An attorney and former managing partner in the professional services firm Deloitte, Slone took leadership of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce in February 2018.
He said between 30,000 and 40,000 jobs are currently unfilled in Nebraska, with another 10,000 to 15,000 jobs unadvertised because employers have stopped trying to fill them.
“If 50,000 people arrived in Nebraska today we could employ them right away,” he said.
An important part of the solution is immigration, Slone said, given that even the 25,000 high school graduates Nebraska produces annually is insufficient to meet growing job demand.
Population stagnation, or even decline, is a greater problem for rural communities than the Omaha metro area, he said, but those rural communities that embrace immigration are on the upswing.
“There’s absolutely no doubt — I don’t care where you are on the politics of the day — there is no doubt that immigration is going to have to be part of the solution,” he said. “You just cannot add up the numbers any other way.”
Slone urged parents to understand that future prosperity will relate more to trades like welding, and fields like robotics, than law and medicine, and to advise their children accordingly. He advised young Nebraskans who wish to pursue careers in technology to consider that traditional Nebraska industries such as farming, railroading and trucking are rapidly becoming highly technological.
In a few years, he said, combines will be have no driver and will be operated from a control center. Trucking and railroads face a similar future.
Slone placed heavy emphasis on Blueprint Nebraska, which is a private coalition of leaders drawn from government and business located throughout the state. After a year of conducting interviews across the state the group will soon release draft recommendations, he said, which will focus on ways to strengthen the economy.