Just like many others living in manufacturing-centric communities across the United States, Columbus leaders are being forced to creatively problem solve in terms of finding employees to fill the city’s more than 800 job openings.
“An issue for the entire country is recruitment and retention of valuable employees,” said Jeanne Schieffer, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce. “And when you look at all of the companies and corporations we have here that are global in nature, you know that it’s going to be something that affects us, too.”
In January, Chamber Workforce Coordinator Kara Asmus and three others – from Columbus Public Schools, the Nebraska Public Power District and Centro Hispano – traveled to the Puerto Rico to learn more about its workforce, unemployment rates and country officials’ reception toward having its citizens emigrate to find work.
Asmus has been working with the Chamber for about four years and said that she is always looking for opportunities to strengthen Columbus’ local economy. This includes attending 20 to 28 job fairs annually, hosting job simulators at local middle and high schools to inform youth about the local job opportunities at their fingertips, and in some cases, jumping on a plane and traveling to Puerto Rico.
“The rest of the nation is beginning to see the same things that we are with the labor shortage; more people are retiring and not enough people entering the workforce,” Asmus said, adding that Columbus is hovering around a 2.9 percent unemployment rate. “So we are looking at thinking outside the box, thinking about the places that we haven’t thought about, where it’s a place where there is a high unemployment rate and there are people who have skills that will transfer here because the certifications they receive where they live are those that make them ready to go straight to work here.”
With Puerto Rico being a U.S. territory, Asmus noted that it’s a place where many other cities looking to bolster their workforces have checked out. With its unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent, numerous skilled laborers, educators and medical professionals are looking to relocate somewhere with a more stable economy enabling them to prosper.
“Hurricane Maria happened and this mass exodus of people from the island started taking place – their unemployment rate was around 11 percent," Asmus said of the time immediately following the Category 5 hurricane that decimated the island in 2017. “So we are not the first state to think of this, we are not the first city to think of this, we are honestly a little behind the game.”
And while this may be the case, Asmus noted that there are still several pockets of opportunity – untapped pools of talent – waiting to be capitalized on.
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“In particular, nursing and health care-type professions and teaching professions, just because of that mass exodus of people,” Asmus said. “There are many, many teachers that are misplaced now because the schools don’t have the enrollment they used to have. And teachers are finding themselves without a job or they are taking a severe cut in pay. They are looking for other opportunities."
The goal, Asmus said, is to have employees relocating from Puerto Rico by January 2020.
Currently, the Chamber is working with several businesses andorganizations that are interested in taking on employees from Puerto Rico. These include Columbus Community Hospital, Columbus Public Schools, Central Community College, ADM, Becton Dickinson, the City of Columbus, Behlen Mfg. Co. and Advanced Services.
All businesses looking to take on those from Puerto Rico as employees must go through an application process with the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human resources. Ultimately, Puerto Rican government officials make the decision regarding whether it will be a positive move for the person looking to leave the island.
“That stems from a law that goes all the way back to the (19)60s when some people were recruited off of the island for labor and were misused,” Asmus said. “And this was set up to protect those foreign workers from being taken advantage of. It’s a safety net for the employees that might see some potential elsewhere so that they aren’t misled.”
In addition to pursuing talent directly off the island, another route will be to look at some of the people who have already relocated to the mainland. Many, Asmus said, are living in coastal cities and are still having issues finding the right job fit and living accommodations.
“They have settled in places they think are going to be ideal,” she said of some who have moved from Puerto Rico to the continental U.S. “And they have found that there suddenly are seven (people) living in a one-bedroom apartment paying an unbelievable amount of money for that rent … They are just not finding what they thought they were going to find.
“Well, we have answers for those people, and so that is the area that I am really the most interested in recruiting. Because they have already made that leap to the mainland, and the hoops we have to jump through are gone. We don’t have to apply to be approved anymore. And I think the cost of living and the lifestyle that Nebraska offers is more like what they are looking for, it’s more like where they came from. We can offer a better alternative to the people who have taken that leap.”