Flipping the Script: Industry leaders work to meet pressing challenges

Widespread societal shifts are driving innovations to address needs that were well-established long before volatility and uncertainty characterized day-to-day lives – needs only underscored during challenging moments.

State and local banking, transportation, education, nonprofit and business leadership are embodying the forward-thinking that supports stronger industries and communities in 2022 and beyond.

“Clearly, COVID has forced all businesses to adapt and engrain more flexibility into their company cultures and operations,” said Richard J. Baier, president and CEO with the Nebraska Bankers Association. “Businesses are using these pandemic lessons to better meet the needs of their customers.”

Baier noted statewide gains in successful entrepreneurial ventures and small startups (with record levels of venture capital investments), as well as ag’s continued performance through the pandemic.

“The main challenges going forward include finding and retaining a skilled workforce and ensuring that all residents benefit from Nebraska’s strong economy,” he said.
On any given day, Baier said there are 500-plus bank job openings in the state. The industry is responding with “creativity and technology” – interactive teller machines to enhanced digital banking platforms.

In fact, as banks have pivoted from keeping customers afloat (with the likes of the Paycheck Protection Program), there is a renewed focus on increasing one’s personal savings, planning, and financial education opportunities.

“Inflationary impacts, coupled with continued supply chain challenges, will clearly be important for Nebraska businesses to keep in their sights,” he said.

Baier expects continued M&A activity to decrease the number of charters in the state.
“But the number of local bank branches and bank employment should remain steady,” he said.

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Unprecedented low interest rates are limiting future profit potential, Baier said, while “historically-elevated” levels of deposits are coupled with constrained loan growth. Fraudulent activity has also escalated to new levels.

“Nebraska banks are ramping up customer protections and fraud detection efforts,” he said.
The NBA’s public policy and advocacy team is responding to these and other challenges; for instance, Baier isolated its involvement with crafting new digital asset legislation – allowing banks and consumers to more easily and securely enter the cryptocurrency space.

Its education department has moved some of the 40-plus training programs to the virtual environment, while Baier said the NBA is working proactively with members to address workforce shortages (i.e., internship placements, financial literacy training in schools).

Moving Transportation Access Forward

The Greater Omaha Chamber’s Stephen Osberg heads up ConnectGO, a partnership with the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency, Metro Smart Cities and Metro Transit to build a new, forward-looking transportation plan.

“Our goal is to reexamine our transportation system to make sure it’s meeting our region’s greatest needs now and into the future,” said Osberg, director of transportation and urban development.

Osberg said ConnectGO’s outreach and research resulted in four main goals, starting with equitable access to opportunity.

“Everyone should be able to access the goods and services they need, especially employment, education, food or health care,” he said.

Turning to goal No. 2, having lifestyle options that make the metro an attractive place to attract and retain talent.

Its third objective of economic growth is a nod to transportation as the vehicle to support more efficient freight movement and real estate development.

Lastly, stewardship of the system was isolated to adequately maintain current infrastructure and ensure future maintenance-oriented investments.

Osberg said its transportation strategy document is setting forth the long-term vision for a more walkable Omaha in the coming decades.

In early January, he said ConnectGO is setting the stage for large-scale implementation with the creation of a Regional Transit Authority; $0 Metro Transit fares for K-12 students; a package of projects to be submitted for federal funding; a forthcoming Omaha bicycle and pedestrian plan with Metro Transit’s MetroNEXT strategy; employer-based alternatives to driving programs; and a protected bikeway along Harney Street in partnership with Metro Smart Cities, Bike Walk Nebraska and Omaha by Design.

Moving into its third year this summer, ConnectGO is weighing in on proposed zoning changes to complement ORBT’s transit service, and conversations around public health and racial equality to address long standing inequities remain its central motivation. Notably, Osberg said pockets of the metro have significantly higher unemployment rates (up to 16%) than the region as a whole. These census tracts have greater concentrations of black or Latinx people. Osberg said disparities surfaced repeatedly during outreach, a portion of which is explained by lack of access to vehicles – limiting access to employment, health care and education.

“We need to do better in providing high quality options to driving,” he said
Business competition used to be centered around natural resources. Now, competition is about talent. And Osberg said people around the country are increasingly seeking places where it’s easier to move via transit, bike, or walking.

“Until we can meet that need, we risk missing out on talent,” he stated.

Accelerating Educational Access

Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Sacha Kopp, Ph.D., summed up the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s mission as “one of access.”

“Online learning creates an avenue for so many people in the greater Omaha community, region, state and even across the country to access higher education at UNO while also tending to other responsibilities in their life – their families, local communities and jobs,” he said.

Kopp attributes UNO’s success over the past 20-plus years in this space to focusing on the right things: quality, access, flexibility and affordability.

“We have grown online in a way that complements and extends our on-campus tradition and reputation,” he said.

The university is considering new and enhanced ways to support students and workforce development; for instance, by partnering local corporations to offer employees continuing education, college or advanced degrees.

“Thus far, nine corporations, including several of the area’s largest employers and Fortune 500 companies, have made this resource available to their employees,” Kopp stated in early January. “Approximately 98% of the courses have reached these employees, thanks to online learning.”

As an example of UNO’s growth in online learning, its first program in public administration started in the late 1990s and now spans 12 and 7 undergraduate and graduate programs, respectively.

“But online is also part of the fabric of the UNO campus, with the vast majority of students taking at least one online class before they graduate,” he said.

The “workplace of the future” requires strong digital competencies. So, Kopp said, their experience at UNO builds transferrable skills for careers. There is balance, which accounts for how students crave campus life after a year of remote learning, while they also enjoy the flexibility of online courses.

Assistant Vice Chancellor for Curriculum and Programs Sarah Edwards, Ph.D., also harkened back to UNO’s established infrastructure for digital learning, mix of academic technology, core online coursework, and faculty experienced with technology well before 2020.

“Our biggest need as the pandemic began was to scale our effective practices to all faculty and students,” she said, “and make resources and support available 24/7.”

New tools weren’t necessary to navigate this shift; rather, she said they extended efforts by expanding the likes of laptop and MiFi portable internet device checkout programs.

“More of our students had the technology they needed readily available to them,” Edwards said.

Working through the third academic year impacted by the pandemic, UNO is exploring ways to support students with economic, personal, and public health stressors; for instance, Edwards referenced how digital learning is offering workshops to faculty and staff where best practices. Also, she said much UNO’s professional development and training at present focuses on “humanizing the digital environment” — creating meaningful connections through digital tools.

“Our goal at UNO is to have a highly engaging, robust digital learning environment where students feel extremely supported as they pursue their academic goals,” she said.
More academic programs are moving into online formats (in addition to campus offerings), including high-demand areas of cybersecurity, business, IT and social work.

Chancellor Joanne Li is excited about UNO’s partnership with Open Educational Resources, which offers free or reduced-cost digital course materials in lieu of standard textbooks, as she said the costs of textbooks have gotten so high that many students “can no longer afford to purchase them.”

“By working with instructors to adopt OER and integrate it right into the learning management system, we save students money but also increase their ability to be successful,” she said.

In all, OER and first day access eBooks have saved UNO students $2.2 million over the past few years.

To prioritize workforce development, Li said UNO is creating “microcredentials” and high-demand certificate areas critical to the metro economy to enhance skill sets in less time than traditional undergraduate and grad programs. Reportedly, launches are planned in entrepreneurship, leadership, and equity and inclusion.

Supporting Communitywide Needs

The Omaha Community Foundation highlighted grassroots grant programs to support those corners of the region faced with persistent needs, and encouraged nonprofits and neighborhood groups to apply for this year’s Community Interest, resident-led funds: African American Unity Fund, Equality Fund for LGBTQIA2S+,  Futuro Latino Fund, Omaha Neighborhood Grants and the Refugee Community Grant Fund. Grants valued at $822,000 were awarded to 76 nonprofits and neighborhood groups last year.

Program Manager Katrina Adams said resident-led programs give everyday people opportunities to be decisionmakers about services and activities in their neighborhoods.
“They are truly focused on building up the applicant organizations,” Adams said. “So, they can be more competitive with other potential donors and funders.”

Strategic investments are designed to elevate access and equity, and committees that lead the grant process include residents who come from or identify with the population being served. They review proposals and decide the projects to fund based off of firsthand experience.

OCF is also partnering with the city of Omaha to distribute $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to reportedly provide enhancements to existing programs in historically-challenged areas of crisis intervention, violence prevention and workforce development. These challenges have been compounded by the pandemic and recession.

Omaha’s Community Grant Program focuses on Qualified Census Tracts where 50% or more households have incomes lower than 60% of the Area Median Gross Income (or poverty rates of 25% or greater). CIF and ARPA application windows close March 1 and April 1, respectively.

Big Picture Economic, Workforce Needs

“We spend a lot of time with our donors and members,” said Greater Omaha Chamber SVP of Economic Development Todd Johnson. “They want to talk about three things: workforce development, workforce development and workforce development. It is the most critical opportunity that we have in our community.”

The Chamber’s efforts are embodied, partly, by internship partnership with the likes of Aksarben Foundation and universities.

“Everybody is talking about internships and how to create an environment where juniors and seniors in high school have an opportunity for workforce experience,” he said. “We know anecdotally and qualitatively that [internships] have a direct correlation to attraction and retention.”

Omaha’s ecosystem attracts talent from away, and Johnson said individuals stay, because they see economic opportunity locally.

“They don’t necessarily stay with the companies that created the internship, but with the overall business community,” he said. “We have an important coalition with chambers from across the state. So, everybody is rowing in unison and creating exponentially more internships opportunities than we have today.”

Senior Director of workforce Development Ana Lopez Shalla indicated the Chamber and its partners are looking at the quality of internships, diving deep into pain points that have characterized an old concept, and past barriers to scaling such programs.

“We are having those conversations now,” she said. “Some [challenges] are logistical … or issues with support, best practices and diversity.”

The key to getting outsiders excited about Nebraska and Omaha, Johnson said, are experiences that transcend signature events (like the CWS).

“There is a tremendous amount of research and data around having an experience in addition to having a relationship,” he said; for instance, strategies may involve leveraging individuals who grew up here, or local young professionals to re-engage with college roommates.

Shalla said the focus is on the “largest outmigration” (18- to 35-year-olds). Models should be flexible enough to account for “every facet and every corner of the workforce.”

Johnson added that great member-companies have remote interns who may not currently have to move. But can “still be impactful and productive from wherever they reside.”

“There is a pretty massive disruption in the workforce that doesn’t just apply to internships,” he said. “I know a number of folks who live in West O and work for larger companies in California. They benefit from the cost of living and quality of life here. But they’re currently employed elsewhere around the world. That’s an opportunity for those folks to get plugged in to some local companies.”

Shalla spoke at greater length to Workforce Council efforts. A targeted Chamber council, it spans a strategist (“think tank”) arm to refine ideas, and a champion arm to amplify them.
“Workforce development is a noisy space,” she said. “It’s even noisier now, because tens of millions of dollars are being pumped into it. So, we’re getting folks coalesced around strategies and doing a bunch of little things with one-off groups in a moment like this. To feed every bit of talent into a system in a reliable way requires engaging in common, scalable workforce strategies.”

At the time of this writing, a bill was being introduced to the Nebraska legislature to reportedly provide $50 million to fund internship program staff, related reimbursements (such as housing), and flexible, responsive entities and programs themselves. Aside from the considerable discussions around internships, Shalla noted in the second half of the year the Workforce Council is looking at hidden talent pools and job sharing. Underutilized talent pools include caregivers, formerly incarcerated, differently-abled and military veterans.
Lastly, Shalla highlighted “clearing pathways” to increase diversity, equity and inclusion; for instance, supporting companies’ leadership development efforts.

This “moment,” she said, calls for active engagement, rather than passivity.

“In the past, an employer might post a job and get 20 applicants for it and only half were qualified,” she said. “There wasn’t an incentive to play a role in pipeline development.”