As the summer months continue, the Legislature is gearing up for what will most likely be an intense 2020 session. We will be addressing topics ranging from redistricting to comprehensive property tax reform to economic incentives. I plan to extensively research these issues for next session.
While the national economy is strong and unemployment low, there are still issues facing our state. Even though Nebraska has won three Governor’s Cups in a row for economic development, maintaining that development depends heavily on replacing the Advantage Act, which took effect in 2006. The Advantage Act was a system of business incentives to make Nebraska competitive with neighboring states and fight “brain drain.”
One of Nebraska’s biggest issues economically is the ability to keep entrepreneurs from leaving the state for other jobs and homes elsewhere. This happens in two stages — first, some of our best students forego an education at one of Nebraska’s institutions. Second, many of those who do get an education at schools like Wayne State or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln leave the state after graduation to take jobs elsewhere, like those in high-skill, high-demand, high-wage jobs, also dubbed “H3” jobs. This is called “brain drain” — when Nebraska’s best talent leaves for other states.
The effect of the brain drain on Nebraska is very real. The state’s Department of Labor projects over 34,000 openings in these H3 occupations every year through 2026. In Scotts Bluff County, for instance, this means annual openings to the tune of 125 in accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, or 100 for K-12 educators. Outside of my own county, 13 of Nebraska’s 93 counties don’t have a primary care physician. Former NU President Hank Bounds said once that in his talks with a Scottsbluff hospital administrator, the administrator wouldn’t hesitate to hire 50 more nurses if the candidates were there.
In comparison to other states in the nation, University of Nebraska at Omaha demographer David Drozd cites Nebraska as the 10th worst state in retaining people 25 and older that have at least a bachelor’s degree from 2012 to 2016, according to an Omaha World-Herald article in April 2018. These numbers were based on U.S. Census Bureau numbers. According to Drozd, that comes out to 20,000 people lost to other states every decade.
During the 106th Nebraska Legislature session, I introduced LB 639 to help bring the workforce back and to spark a discussion about how to address our workforce shortage. This bill would have provided government scholarships (matched by private companies) for students that took an internship and stayed to go to school in the state. It’s also vital to support our state university whenever possible — a recent study made public in May valued the University of Nebraska’s impact on the state economy at $4.5 billion. Without that support, we could see damage, like that happening in Alaska — costing Nebraska jobs and opportunities.
The solution comes in three parts. First of all, H3 jobs have to be available in Nebraska for students to take. A 2016 Brookings Institution study stated Nebraska ranked 40th in the country for occupations in heavy reliance of research, development or STEM fields. Without these "advanced industries," our financial health as a state can be undermined by unhealthy surpluses in low-paying jobs. Nebraska has already made slight progress by encouraging companies like Facebook to establish centers here, but we must also find a way to make sure our rural communities share in the successes.
Secondly, students should be shown why staying in Nebraska is an appealing option.
The Nebraska Tourism Commission has done a great job of this in the past few years by using ingenious marketing tools and slogans. If potential workforce members can appreciate our "hidden gems" such as the Haymarket and Old Market in Lincoln and Omaha, respectively, our growing sports and entertainment scene, natural treasures like the Sand Hills, and the state’s central location to the rest of the contiguous United States, they will be more willing to stay.
Finally, job-seekers need to be reassured that there is affordable housing available — which will be the topic of my piece next time.
A final note: many people in my district have been impacted severely by an irrigation canal failure in Wyoming just over one week ago. This is a big event, and it will have a major economic impact to many people in the agriculture field this year. There are many people across both states working this issue quickly and resiliently. My staff and I have been a part of numerous conference calls discussing the developments with all involved, and a staff member also virtually attended a Wednesday meeting for the affected constituency by video-conference. While temporary solutions are being implemented, this problem could warrant a further look when next the Legislature convenes. I encourage anyone affected by this to visit this website for anything they may need — from attorneys to behavioral health professionals and others.