On the Right Path: Omaha’s Economy Strengthens Post-Pandemic

Steady regional growth coupled with recent economic initiatives is paving the way for success in Omaha. As unemployment remains low, new legislation arises and entities continue to work together to strengthen the community, and experts predict an optimistic outlook moving forward.

Considering the Statistics

It’s no surprise that since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, businesses, nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies across the nation have suffered below-par economic performance. Dr. Ernie Goss, MacAllister chair and professor of economics at Creighton University, said this is due to two primary factors. First, supply chain disruptions and delays have resulted in products becoming entangled in shipping delays at U.S. ports, warehouses and air terminals dotted across the nation. Second, labor shortages have crippled organizations’ abilities to meet the demands of other businesses or consumers.

“Retirements, lack of affordable day care and government financial support for non-work related activities have been the most important factors generating labor shortages,” Goss said. “The Omaha Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has likewise suffered from these factors, but in varying degrees.”

Omaha’s low unemployment rate is nuanced. 

“Omaha’s current unemployment rate of 2.6% compared to a U.S. rate of 3.5% attests to the relative lack of available workers in the Omaha MSA,” Goss said. “In terms of unemployed workers, the current number is virtually unchanged from the pre-pandemic value of the U.S. jobless at 5 million workers while Omaha’s unemployed number has declined from 25,000 to approximately 13,000.”

If Omaha is to continue to prosper, Goss said it must solve the worker shortage issue by one or all of the following actions: 1) ensure more affordable child care for potential workers, 2) incentivize the remaining workforce by increasing the gap between hourly pay for work and hourly support for non-work (leisure) and 3) encourage or incentivize greater in-migration, or reduced out-migration.

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Bouncing Back 

Following the unexpected period of challenges and uncertainty that the pandemic presented, Omaha’s economy continues to recover. Mark Norman, senior director of business attraction and expansion at the Greater Omaha Chamber, said the unemployment rate continues to be low and the area has a slightly higher labor force now than it did pre-pandemic, which is promising as the number of jobs is almost at pre-pandemic levels.

“The region’s continued steady growth despite nationwide challenges is a major selling point for Omaha and we have seen the benefits in our landed projects,” Norman said. “In 2022, just in the urban core alone, we have seen Mutual of Omaha announce a huge investment downtown, the streetcar continues to move forward, continued development with The Mercantile on the Conagra campus, a new office building in the Builders District and expansion at Millwork Commons.”

On top of these developments, Omaha’s tech sector remains hot. Norman mentioned that Google is continuing investment in Council Bluffs and has announced an additional $500 million investment in Papillion and a new site in northwest Omaha along Highway 133. Meta/Facebook expansions in Sarpy County have also contributed to huge opportunities for the construction and trades along with the warehouse/distribution construction boom. 

“Major investments such as these tell us Omaha is trending in the right direction,” Norman said. 

Change is Coming

Looking at 2023, the main theme is change as it pertains to the legislative session. A new governor, likely a new speaker, a new appropriations committee chairman and at least 16 new senators are poised to enter office, said Jennifer Creager, vice president of public policy for the Greater Omaha Chamber. 

“After each election, the dynamics of the body always shift, but there are many unknowns this year in particular,” Creager said. “Who will emerge as leaders? How will the new governor and the legislature work together? What issues will rise to the top as priorities?”

Creager said a productive short session last year may leave the cupboard a little bare for repeat issues. While social issues are expected to dominate much of the discussion, what else will emerge as priorities remains to be seen.

“One thing we know for sure — tax policy is always part of the conversation in Lincoln,” Creager said. “There will be turnover on the revenue committee, too, but the chair is an experienced leader with a major win under her belt last session. I expect her to unveil even more efforts to continue cutting taxes — as long as state revenues continue to stay strong.”

New Opportunities 

With so many positive initiatives in the works, it’s safe to say there are many factors currently impacting the economy in Omaha. Tim Mittan, Nebraska district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration, said the Greater Omaha Chamber, Omaha Economic Development Corporation and the city of Omaha’s Planning Department along with several other local, state and federal agencies are all working together to create growth and stability in the Greater Omaha region. One of the more prominent economic development initiatives — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) — was passed earlier this year.

According to Mittan, the passing of the BIL will likely have an impact on Omaha’s economy.

“The BIL provides funding for a wide variety of projects to modernize infrastructure, strengthen the supply chain, assist in fighting climate change and more,” Mittan said. “These projects could provide a myriad of procurement opportunities for Nebraska small business owners and we are encouraging them to pursue state and federal certifications that would assist them in being competitive for these contracts.”

Mittan mentioned that business owners can reach out to the Nebraska Procurement Technical Assistance Center in Omaha for more information and assistance with getting certified.

Resources are Available 

As supply chain disruption issues, difficulties hiring and retaining employees and rising prices continue to disrupt Omaha small business owners, it’s more important than ever for business owners to reach out to the free resources around them like NBDC, SCORE and the GROW Nebraska Women’s Business Center. Mittan said these organizations can assist small business owners with pivoting their businesses, revamping their pricing structures, exploring additional revenue streams and more. 

“Small business owners have always known the importance of being adaptable to changing market conditions, but times have been more challenging than ever,” Mittan said. 

For this reason, Mittan encouraged entrepreneurs to take advantage of guaranteed loan programs and technical assistance provided through the SBA and its resource partners. 

While there will always be complexities impacting Omaha’s economy and work will always need to be done to further boost the community, local experts agree that Omaha is headed in the right direction.