It’s a curious twist of fate when something as destructive as a global pandemic opens the door to helping people, but that’s just the reality in which Heartland Workforce Solutions (HWS) finds itself.
The nonprofit, which focuses on strengthening Nebraska’s workforce, has long seen the need for a physical presence in South Omaha and now is getting one, thanks to federal funding directly as a result of COVID-19.
HWS recently received $600,000 via the Omaha American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Community Grant Program. The money, which will be used to give HWS permanent building space in South Omaha, is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act. Signed by President Joe Biden last spring, ARPA funds provided direct support to citizens in the form of stimulus payments as well as assisted state, county and city governments in recovering from the effects of the pandemic.
Help Where Needed
“South Omaha has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and a lot of folks there are experiencing challenges in employment,” said HWS Executive Director Erin Porterfield. “One thing we know is meatpacking plants and other food production services didn’t stop working through the pandemic. As a result, workers there were disproportionately affected by illness, by childcare issues, by school closure issues, everything.
“We also know that folks in South Omaha ZIP codes are also lower income, some experiencing poverty, some experiencing lower graduation rates from high school. Not only that, but you also have some folks who are still second language learners, from Spanish to English. That poses additional challenges.”
HWS’ new resource center will bring a variety of job- and career-related services to the community, among them offering support for job searches, resumé assistance, interviewing skills, occupation and career path awareness, referral to workforce partner programs, employer education and hosting recruiting events.
Boots on the Ground
Stan Odenthal, HWS director of business relations, said having a physical presence helps the organization be more responsive, both to employment challenges and opportunities, by leveraging applicants’ current skills and training them for better-paying positions.
“Having that access point in the neighborhood matters; Something close by that individuals can come to and get connected with resources in the right language,” he said. “We know that in and around South Omaha there are a lot of great jobs, but there’s also a lot of jobs that pay on the lower scale of things.
“One of the things we think is a fantastic opportunity in South Omaha is not only reaching those individuals and connecting them with jobs as they walk through our center, but also helping upskill individuals and then getting them connected with the middle- and high-skill jobs that pay more.”
Porterfield said the organization has already identified a property – a 10,000-square-foot, build-to-suit location – which HWS is leasing from Canopy South. She said several organizations are also lining up to work out of the new resource center.
“We have a number of our workforce system partners who are saying ‘I want space, I want space,’” she said. “We are identifying right now with the architect how that space will play out so that we can understand how many folks can work there at any one time.”
Matching Workers to Jobs
The volume of people needing help to find work seems incongruous with headlines screaming about the scarcity of labor over the past two years. However, Odenthal said, this only underscores how nuanced the issue of employment is among certain populations.
“You look at the unemployment rate and you see it’s like 1.9% for Nebraska, which is lowest in the country. Omaha is a little bit higher, but not by much,” he said. “Even with that low unemployment rate, we’re still seeing a ton of people. On a typical Monday, we’ll have 120 people walking through our doors. All of those individuals, on some level, are looking for employment.
“The reality is, there are a lot of individuals who are still looking for employment or looking for better employment. They’re looking for good opportunities to grow within an organization. Those are some of the topics of conversation we have with businesses. How can you make the hiring process a little easier on the job applicant? How can you get more people through the door?”
Porterfield agreed, saying local companies must understand how to strategically position themselves as an employer of choice, something with which HWS is happy to assist.
“When we hear folks say, ‘I’ve got all these jobs available, why don’t people want to work?’ That’s an important conversation,” she said. “In reality, people are working more than ever and sometimes more jobs than what’s healthy for them and their family. Right now, businesses have a great opportunity to get the right culture together to access the talent that they need to grow. But it’s going to take some education and some flexibility on their part.”
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