Leaders from a number of communities around the area were in Scottsbluff Thursday for the reorganization of the Western Nebraska Economic Development Committee (WNED).
Formed in 2015, WNED coordinates economic development efforts through member communities across the Panhandle area. At the meeting were members from Kimball, Mitchell, Morrill, Bayard, Sidney, as well as Scottsbluff and Gering.
“WNED was created to be a political action group for all municipalities and agencies that want to be involved,” Gering Mayor Tony Kaufman said. “It’s our opportunity to talk over regional issues and find solutions. All successful programs across the state have a regional component to them. Working together we can be a bigger voice in Lincoln.”
Kaufman told community leaders that all are facing many of the same major challenges: economic development, workforce development and available housing.
One of the items on WNED’s original “wish list” from 2015 was working with local school systems to create a pipeline of students that graduate “work ready.” That includes working with private sector businesses to create job training and apprenticeship programs that meet the area’s workforce needs.
Doug Mader, workforce development director at Western Nebraska Community College, shared with the group about the Work Ready Community Certification Project, administered through ACT, the college test company.
The project is a formal process to improve measurable workforce skills that are needed in every industry sector. They include critical thinking and math reasoning, reading and using workplace documents and graphic literacy to understand charts, graphs and diagrams.
Currently, the only certified work ready community in Nebraska is Omaha.
“This is a nationally recognized, formal certification process that fits any career path,” Mader said. “It helps individuals learn how to be productive employees and gives communities a tool to recruit those workers.”
He added that ACT has mapped more than 22,000 jobs to an appropriate certification level to determine how job applicants will fit into specific career areas.
High school and college students, and even adults can study for and take the assessment online through WNCC, which is acting as local coordinator for the project.
“Nationally, people who have taken the assessment display a 20% increase in productivity and for employers, a reduction in time to hire, along with a 70% reduction in cost to hire,” Mader told the group.
He said a group of work ready certified communities are in a better position to attract new and expanding businesses because the workforce skills assessment is nationally recognized.
Out of the 4.86 million certificate holders in the U.S., there are 4,361 in Nebraska and 23 in the 11 Panhandle counties.
Mader said he’d like to see all Panhandle counties represented with local leadership teams of chamber directors, city officials, education officials and industry representatives.
Also speaking to the group was Carol Gooden-Rice with the U.S. Census Bureau. She asked for community assistance in assuring all people fill out census documentation. An accurate count of the nation’s population is required by the U.S. Constitution every 10 years.
“For the first time in history, people will receive census information in the mail,” Gooden-Rice said. “They can also participate online or by phone, so no census workers will be knocking on doors.”
She added the census comes at a controversial time. However, their job is to count all people in the country, both citizens and non-citizens.
The census is important because population is used to determine how many U.S. Representatives each state receives. Redistricting could become an important issue for Nebraska this year as the western part of the state could potentially lose one or two representatives at the state level.
Population is also used to determine how federal funding is distributed, this year amounting to about $675 billion across the nation.