Nebraska is well-represented in the most recent, sixth annual SmartAsset study on the “best cities for young professionals.”
In this study, released by the financial resources and analytics hub in July, Omaha and Lincoln both made the top 10 cities for this coveted demographic. Sandwiched between Seattle and St. Paul, Omaha ranked No. 4 on the list. At 10, Lincoln was on the heels of Cincinnati and Kansas City, Missouri.
Notably, the only metro areas in the state with more than 100,000 people “bested” those “peer,” “competitor” and “aspirational” communities, which were previously identified by the Greater Omaha Chamber and its regional partnership. The only market to make the list, “competitor” Kansas City, was ranked No. 9.
Omaha, specifically, was isolated for its 25th-lowest average rental rates, 14th-lowest unemployment, and 14th-lowest percentage of median earnings (FTEs) going toward housing. These same attributes were highlighted for Lincoln, which boasted the fifth-lowest unemployment rate of the 144 communities analyzed and with available data, and the 22nd-lowest affordability (rental rates compared to median FTE earnings).
Business, community and industry leaders offered their takes on the bright spots and the lingering clouds that draw and, conversely, drain top talent from the Husker state and its neighboring communities across the river.
“First and foremost, Omaha is a unique city,” asserted Veta T. Jeffery, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber. “Initiatives and partnerships that flourish here would struggle to find momentum elsewhere … you can find unwavering support from a thriving community of like-minded movers and shakers.
“You can connect with a seasoned mentor, and learn from their years of experience. You can find counsel with peers in other industries or similar organizations. And you can find opportunity here to serve others and stretch yourself outside your comfort zone.”
The bottom line, for Jeffery, who brought with her considerable experience and perspective in diversity, community and economic development throughout St. Louis County in Missouri, is the local YP community is “dedicated to helping others reach their full potential.”
“As amazing as our community is, there’s still room for growth,” she acknowledged. “Programs like the annual YP Summit, YP Day at the Capitol, and our mission-driven YP Council are bold examples of this; however, the time has come for us as a community to stop referring to YPs as ‘our future’ and recognize them as ‘our now.’ YPs possess the ideas that will lead us into tomorrow and the energy to make that progressive new world come to fruition. But our recent rankings notwithstanding, we still have work to do.”
She spoke to a need for a “renewed focus on developing YPs” that transcend networking opportunities.
“We need their ambitious voices on boards,” Jeffery said. “We need them on planning committees and think tanks. We need YPs running for political office. We need YPs now, not tomorrow.”
She indicated the focus must be on ensuring that YPs feel their “voices matter.”
“Our next step is increased opportunities for growth, as well as expanding opportunities for impact and influence,” Jeffery stated.
A Place to Call Home
NP Dodge President of Residential Sales Jill Anderson, naturally, provided local insights into one of the highlights noted by SmartAsset for Omaha and Lincoln: housing affordability.
In fact, she isolated the Veros Real Estate Solutions 2022 Q3 VeroFORECAST, which projected that Omaha will be the third best-performing city in the country in 2023.
“Many factors,” Anderson continued, “contributed to this ranking — most significantly, the effect (or lack of effect) rising interest rates have on cities with lower housing costs.”
Beyond the analytics, she also underscored how the 20s and 30s are both fun and exciting as well as foundational.
“As a young professional, you have the opportunity to set a firm foundation for your future, by beginning the process of saving money and making sound financial decisions,” Anderson explained. “One of the best ways to do so is by living in a city with reasonable rent costs, a low cost of living and a low unemployment rate. That way, every dollar you make will go a little bit further, allowing you to save for a down payment on a house, create a savings account, start saving for retirement and simply have a little extra margin for everyday costs.”
In turn, she noted how Omaha blends “big city amenities” with a “small town feel,” whereby it’s easier and more affordable to get involved in the community and to get to know other like-minded people.
“Commutes to anywhere in the city are in minutes,” she said. “Plus, if you’re a foodie, Omaha has a large variety of new restaurant concepts, breweries and cocktail bars as well as shops and boutiques, parks and trails, live music and entertainment venues, art galleries and other places for young people to meet other young people.”
For Anderson, room for improvement comes in the form of Omaha potentially losing out to larger cities with large venues and sporting events that the metro area does not have. In this case, the central location lauded by the likes of logistics professionals may be considered a “challenge,” due to competition at our borders.
“We don’t have professional sports teams such as football, baseball, or basketball which could give some young professionals pause; however, we do have arena football in spring and summer and professional hockey in the winter months,” she stated. “Our airport isn’t an international airport; and if a young professional travels for work, this could be a deterrent.”
Yet, at the same time, again the central location in the heart of the county can be turned into a positive, too, with Anderson adding: “On the bright side, there are international airports that are a short flight or drive for a connecting flight.”
One can’t talk about issues of oft-cited “brain drain” without bringing in the perspective of higher education leadership tasked with empowering those talented young minds, like Tom McDonnell, vice president for academic affairs at Metropolitan Community College. Starting with the positives, he called out the “recession-proof economy,” and an attribute lauded by SmartAsset: the low unemployment rate. Together, these factors, give the “promise of economic stability.”
“Those who are highly skilled can land a job and move from employer to employer fairly easily,” McDonnell said. “And can often command a higher salary to move from one employer to the other.”
He further isolated the “fairly non-existent” traffic compared to larger metros.
“Quality of life is good,” McDonnell stated. “There’s enough nightlife downtown, in Benson and the Blackstone district (to name a few), to make life fun. There are also cultural events and activities throughout the year if you know where to look.”
He looked forward to the new Kiewit Luminarium, slated to open in April as part of a “reimagined Riverfront.”
“Once you decide to settle down and start a family, Omaha is a very family-friendly community,” he added.
Efficient and reliable public transportation is McDonnell’s biggest cited challenge to attracting and keeping young talent. And he offered a caveat to the housing attribute: “While housing costs are on the rise, they are still at or below the national average. That said, property taxes are significantly higher in Omaha and all of Nebraska as compared to Iowa.”
McDonnell also shared insights on actions to accentuate the positives; for instance, he suggested channeling the likes of recent event publicity from the likes of the NCAA Men’s College World Series, which “polish” Omaha’s image on a national front.
“It seems like we try to keep Omaha a secret to the rest of the country,” he said.
Regarding challenges, McDonnell suggested that the city look at expanding access. So, public transit covers all of the city – not just midtown and downtown.
“Metro transit bus service doesn’t go everywhere it needs to go, never has,” he said. “The light rail system is a start, but it needs to expand quickly.”
Furthermore, McDonnell describes MCC as an educational resource for the community, with YPs having the opportunity to stay current in their fields via credit or non-credit workforce training courses.
“Additionally, community education courses provide life-enriching content in the arts, in gardening, home repair and much more,” he added.
MCC leadership also alluded to new programs as potential opportunities in the community; its recently opened Digital Express at the Fort Omaha Campus provides free access to technology, meeting spaces, a digital library and learning for the public. Secondly, the college has developed a postsecondary education mobile device repair certification program, MCC Mobile Device Repair Academy, in conjunction with the wireless industry association CTIA and an independent mobile repair shop, iFixOmaha. The academy is slated to launch in the afore-referenced MCC Digital Express spring quarter.
Across the Bridge
Sara Beth Ray further shared her unique perspective as director of finance and young professional engagement at the Council Bluffs Area Chamber of Commerce. When accounting for CB, and other cities such as Bellevue, the population of the metropolitan statistical area shoots up to around 970,000 (from around 490,000 when accounting for Omaha alone).
“Living in Council Bluffs provides young professionals and young families the best of both worlds — they can continue to grow the career they want with access to great businesses and organizations, while raising a family in a safe neighborhood where they can truly know their neighbors and community,” she asserted. “YPs don’t have to choose between the two here.”
Ray acknowledged that the area is challenged by “stagnancy.”
“We have the infrastructure to get some really exciting projects and events going, but we need the people to do it,” she said. “We have a great group of community-minded people here, but we always need more. It would be great to see some new faces working on community improvements, and I think tapping the young professional crowd is the way to do it.”
Along those lines, Ray indicated leveraging the unique attributes of CB, its “local, friendly feeling,” along with the easy access to Omaha’s amenities.
“By encouraging community organizations and events, we can attract and maintain the brightest minds in the area,” she said. “Personal involvement in events and programs, as well as political initiatives, is the best way to encourage growth and development.”
Ray characterized Impact CB Young Professionals as “the first organization that young professionals should join in CB.”
“We open the door to not only CB Chamber programs, but all community connections,” she explained.
And opportunities abound to get involved right away; for instance, its Foodie Friday is held on the third Friday of each month at 11:30 A.M.
“We pick a new Chamber member restaurant every month and meet up there to network and have a great lunch,” she said. “It’s a great chance to try somewhere new in town and to get to know Impact CB members without the pressure of a long program or event fee.”