Workforce Low Unemployment Numbers Only Part of the Story

No matter how you slice it, Omaha’s 2% unemployment rate is an unprecedented market condition. But some experts say a deeper examination of the numbers yields a less-rosy reality for broad segments of the city’s populace. 

“I would give [the local labor picture] an A+ for employment because the workers of Omaha work incredibly hard and that can be seen across a range of metrics,” said Josie Schafer, director of the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “I would rate the state of labor a fair bit lower, a C+. That is because despite having such a hard-working labor force, wages are still not consistently keeping up with inflation, are not as competitive as in other states, and we still have many job openings suggesting we have some significant labor market challenges.”

Wages Lagging

Schafer pointed to the percentage of people who are underemployed or whose skills limit their employment potential as substantial negatives of the high employment rate.

“Research from the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Public Affairs Research demonstrates more people in Nebraska and Omaha work in low-wage jobs, which are below the median income, compared to high-wage jobs,” she said. “As a result, people that will take jobs in food preparation, retail sales and customer service are critical to filling the jobs we have open today.”

Juan Montoya, executive director of La Fuente Business Center, said the people the organization comes in contact with often hold these low-skill, low-paying jobs for many of the same reasons. 

“When you are 30, 35, and perhaps you have a bachelor’s degree, you’re going to try to be in a position of getting a better job,” he said. “But when you don’t have the language, when you don’t have the network in the area where most people speak English, you’re going to be limited.”

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Education Needed

Montoya said another limiting factor is a lack of financial acumen, making it difficult to rise above the working poor. That spurred Le Fuente to offer classes to help educate people on the basics of personal finance. 

“We help people understand how to manage money, so they can live within their means,” he said. “This also helps them develop opportunities [to start] a business so they can increase their income as much as they want versus working for someone.”

Sandra Reding, president of the Aksarben Foundation, said other types of education are also needed to ensure the state’s labor force is prepared for future opportunities. She pointed to the group’s Nebraska Tech Collaborative’s work as one example. 

“Technology moves quickly and the skills that are needed are very fluid. Just to be able to let students know what types of jobs are available is a challenge,” she said. “One thing the Nebraska Tech Collaborative is very instrumental in is helping work education and businesses work together to make sure all students will be exposed to computer science in their high school or grade school. That’s a big accomplishment.”

AIM Institute at the Heartland Workforce Solutions Jobapalooza job fair. (Courtesy of Heartland Workforce Solutions)
AIM Institute at the Heartland Workforce Solutions
Jobapalooza job fair. (Courtesy of Heartland Workforce Solutions)

Matching Workers and Employers

Similarly, employers often need help learning how to expand their labor force into underserved communities where those jobs are needed.

Heartland Workforce Solutions has been working with general contractors to engage a more diverse workforce. 

“We help them build relationships with communities of color that may look like neighborhood groups, that may look like going into high schools or providing internships or apprenticeships,” said Erin Porterfield, executive director of Heartland Workforce Solutions. “Even in this labor market, it can be hard for the individual to find an employer and that’s where we come in. We narrow the gap between them.”