Labor market remains tight, but workers are available

Dale Foote of the Scottsbluff Transportation Department cuts a section of street for replacement. The city is among many businesses and organizations struggling to find qualified employees for open positions.

SCOTTSBLUFF — As employers report it can be difficult to find qualified workers, local officials indicate that the region’s unemployment rate paints a positive picture.

The most recent reports indicate that the local unemployment rate is at 3.9%, higher than the statewide average of 3%. City of Scottsbluff Economic Development Director Starr Lehl said the slightly higher number tells prospective businesses that there is labor availability and is an encouragement for them to relocate or expand to the region.

“It's encouraging in that it shows that there may be people out there looking or even some who are underemployed,” Lehl said.

Underemployed includes individuals who may be looking to find one full-time or better paying job instead of working two or three jobs to get by.

For Keith Ellis, community and economic development director for Twin Cities Development, workforce availability is a key in recruiting.

“Our No. 1 issue right now is our workforce,” he said. “That’s the most critical issue we have right now. You can’t recruit businesses without it.”

Studies show there are approximately 92,000 people in the regional labor market.

“At 3% unemployment, obviously, that’s not a lot for employers to pick from,” Ellis said. “We want to expand our labor market into central Wyoming and northern Colorado and get that number up to 250,000.”

The Nebraska Department of Economic Development produces the Panhandle Labor Availability Survey and will do the report again this year. Residents and businesses will receive a survey, and the responses to those surveys are critical to helping determine the regional workforce and the skills, education and training that’s available within that workforce. When all the data is collected, Lehl said she believes the study will show there is labor available in the area and make it easier to attract new businesses. Recent layoffs have increased the unemployment number and made more workers available for hire.

In addition to having a workforce available for new jobs, Ellis said that working to increase the skills of the existing workforce is also key.

“We need people like plant managers to replace the current aging group,” he said. “We have to be able to grow them on our own through training current workers from the inside or growing them from outside the organization.”

Lehl said some of the labor numbers indicate to her that there are a number of people who are willing to change from their current occupation and who are re-entering the workforce rather than holding off and taking unemployment or early retirement.

As regional population decreases, Ellis said it is vital to recruit new employees to the area.

“We’re losing population, and our demographic is aging,” he said. “How do you change that? You bring in an influx of new people.”

Lehl said a few factors are key to recruiting new workers to relocate to the region.

“Safety is a big one,” she said. “Everybody wants to feel like they live in a safe community.”

Amenities such as parks, swimming pools and things to do are also important. Health care, educational opportunities, good school systems, the college and arts offerings are other boxes that prospective residents want to have checked.

The household portion of the labor survey includes questions about skills, education, training and even how far an individual may commute for work. Scottsbluff-Gering has one of the highest rates in the state for workers who are commuting in to work.

“That tells me that there are really good paying jobs here and that they are available,” Lehl said.

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