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Jobs are everywhere in Nebraska. Workers? Not so much
  • Updated

There’s never been a better time to find a job in Nebraska.

That was a quote from Gov. Pete Ricketts contained in a Friday announcement celebrating Nebraska's record-low August unemployment rate of 2.2%.

But there may never have been a worse time for companies looking to find workers in the state.

A recent study from careers website CareerCloud found that Nebraska has the second-worst labor shortage in the country, with 1.8 jobs open for every unemployed person. That was second only to the District of Columbia.

That shortage has shown itself most acutely in the services sector, where numerous businesses have had to cut back hours and even close locations temporarily because of a lack of available workers.

One of the latest is Godfather's Pizza, which announced Monday on Facebook that it was closing its restaurant near 48th Street and Nebraska 2 for an undetermined amount of time because of a lack of staff.

"Like much of the restaurant industry, we are experiencing a staffing shortage," the post said. "Our 48th Street location will be temporarily closed until further notice while we work tirelessly to find new individuals to join our crew."

That comes on the heels of incidents in the past couple of months that caused a Lincoln Burger King location and Family Dollar store to close temporarily after large numbers of employees all quit at once.

But it's not just retail and food service businesses that are having trouble hiring. Businesses from manufacturing to construction to state government are struggling to fill openings in Lincoln and elsewhere.

Much of that is due to the labor force not growing as much as the job market.

Nebraska Commissioner of Labor John Albin said Friday that the number of people employed in August finally reached its pre-pandemic level, at just short of 1 million. That number was about 12,000 more than a year ago. However, the number of jobs increased more than 33,000 from a year ago, leaving a gap of more than 20,000.

The numbers were similar in the Lincoln area, with the number of employed people having increased about 5,200 from a year ago, but the number of jobs available up by more than 7,100.

That mismatch has led to an "incredibly tight" labor market, Bryan Seck said.

Seck spent years as the director of workforce development at the Lincoln Partnership for Economic Development before moving a couple of months ago to Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing, where he heads up recruiting for the company's plant in Lincoln, as well as one in Maryville, Missouri.

Kawasaki in July announced plans for a $200 million expansion that will both add capacity to its 2.4 million square feet of manufacturing space at its operations at Northwest 27th Street and U.S. 34 and also increase automation.

The increased automation is largely in response to the difficulty in finding enough people to hire in Lincoln. But even with that innovation, Kawasaki estimates it still will need to hire an additional 550 people over the next 18 months.

That could be tough in the current environment. According to the Nebraska Department of Labor, manufacturing employment is at its highest level in the state since 2008.

Kawasaki is undeterred, though. On Thursday, it held a job fair to fill current openings and also recruit a chunk of those new employees.

Seck said people were standing in line a half-hour before the event began and more than 100 job seekers eventually showed up over the course of the three-hour fair.

"This is exactly what we hoped for," he said, although he conceded he really didn't know what to expect.

Seck said people there Thursday were filling out an application and would be invited back as soon as Friday to complete a skills assessment. Those who passed that assessment were likely to be given conditional job offers on the spot, pending results of background checks and drug screenings. Seck said one person had already been hired as of Friday afternoon.

Seck said he expected a lot of the applicants would be looking to move to a better-paying job or move from part-time work to full-time work. He said he did not expect many unemployed people, however, because "there just aren't many people in Lincoln who are unemployed."

That was borne out in the numbers released Friday, which showed the unemployment rate in August in the Lincoln Metropolitan Statistical Area was 1.7%, the lowest ever recorded in data going back to 1990. The state unemployment rate of 2.2% was the lowest in records going back to 1976.

Kawasaki is hiring for positions that start at $18 an hour and offer a full benefits package. That's a decent wage, but it's well below the average manufacturing wage in Lincoln of more than $21 an hour and the overall average for all jobs of nearly $24 an hour.

Seck said the benefits and the regular full-time hours the jobs offer are a draw to people who have families or are looking for career stability.

"This is the security they're looking for," he said.

It was that security, particularly the benefits, that drew Jayric McDonald to Thursday's job fair.

"This would be my first job," said the 18-year-old recent graduate of Lincoln North Star High School.

McDonald said his brother previously worked at Kawasaki and had good things to say about the company. He said his brother's experience, combined with the pay and benefits Kawasaki is offering, were enticing.

Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Kawasaki, as a premier employer in Lincoln with nearly 2,500 workers, "will have more success in hiring than most companies," with the potential to draw already employed workers looking for better pay and benefits.

But companies on the lower end of the scale will continue to struggle to find workers.

Nebraska has long had a low unemployment rate and high worker participation, something that's usually a good thing, but in current conditions, where labor participation is down due to the coronavirus pandemic and short recession, it's "a very difficult situation for employers," Thompson said, one that's exacerbated by all of the federal relief in the form of enhanced unemployment benefits and three rounds of stimulus checks.

"This is part of the reason the hiring challenges are more severe in the current economic recovery," he said.

Many businesses have been raising wages, offering bonuses and using a number of other enticements to find workers.

Sam's Club is the latest retailer to announce it will raise its starting wage to $15 an hour, following Walgreens and other national chains.

While that strategy can work for large national retailers, it's not one that all companies can or want to adopt.

"Businesses always have job openings, and there is a tension in terms of offering more wages and benefits versus remaining cost-competitive," Thompson said. "That tension remains. For some businesses, it may be better to tolerate a period with more open positions than to raise wages and benefits. It depends on a company's competitive situation."

Low pay and government stimulus are not the only reasons people may be hesitant to reenter the workforce, said Creighton University economics professor Ernie Goss.

There are still people who are worried about COVID-19 and who may live with vulnerable relatives. There are also issues such as skills mismatches and an inability or lack of desire to move from places where jobs are scarce to places where they are plentiful, he said.

Lack of available and affordable child care options also can be a hurdle, Goss said.

Hy-Vee is one company that's attempting to tackle multiple issues to help in its quest for more workers.

The Iowa-based supermarket chain announced earlier this month that it's partnering with WeeCare, the nation’s largest child care network, to offer concierge services for both full- and part-time employees to help them find in-home child care. Hy-Vee employees also get free subscriptions to Care.com, to find caregivers and other personal services workers.

"Many of our employees are parents or caregivers, and having affordable, trustworthy child care when they come to work every day helps give them peace of mind," Randy Edeker, Hy-Vee's president and CEO, said in a news release.

On Friday, Hy-Vee also announced that it's starting a free apprenticeship program for pharmacy technicians to help them become nationally certified to administer vaccinations. The company said it's seeking to hire 2,000 of the techs across its eight-state area.

While offering more pay and better perks is sure to attract some people to get back into the workforce, the economists believe changes in government policy might be needed to solve the latest labor shortage.

Goss said there needs to be more means testing and time limits on federal benefits, but he also recommended more investment in community college training programs, as well as increased infrastructure spending.

Thompson said he generally agreed with those recommendations, but he threw out another one: reducing marginal income and sales tax rates, which are likely to benefit the middle and lower classes more.

"These policies would have long-term benefits but also might incentivize an immediate jolt to labor force participation," he said.


Govt-and-politics
editor's pick alert
City Parks and Recreation's 10-year facilities plan: a to-do list with not enough money to do it all
  • Updated

Lights illuminating the ballfields at Holmes Lake Park, where the crack of softball bats signal summer slipping into fall, are on a list.

So are $600,000 in renovations to city pools and a $2 million water main replacement in Pioneers Park.

They’re among the additions to a long, detailed to-do list for the Lincoln Parks and Recreation Department, which handles facilities worth more than $400 million, not including the land those recreational facilities sit on or the city’s golf courses.

Managing the playground equipment, basketball and tennis courts in the city’s 137 parks, its ballfields and swimming pools and 112 miles of trails involves a list that looks forward 10 years, a document the city created in 2013 and updates every two years.

The 10-year facilities plan details all the work that needs to be done and points out a reality: There’s more to be done than money to do it.

“We’ll use every bit of what’s available to us, but it means we’ll leave some things that need attention unattended,” said J.J. Yost, the department’s planning and facilities manager.

The draft of the plan, on which Parks and Rec officials are seeking public comment through Oct. 8, details nearly $39 million in repairs and replacement of sidewalks and parking lots, trail bridges and swimming pools, picnic shelters and playground equipment and myriad other work.

It also includes $48 million in projects the department anticipates needing to add to keep up with the city’s growth.

That total — nearly $88 million — looks forward a decade. If you annualize those numbers, it means that Parks and Rec needs roughly $3.87 million a year for repairs and replacement of existing facilities. That number includes $234,000 to replace and plant new trees across the city and $422,000 a year to remove and replace ash trees in danger from the Emerald Ash Borer infestation.

The department gets about $300,000 a year in leases for cell tower equipment on city park  property; $1.1 million a year in keno funds and $500,000-$800,000 a year in general city revenue.

That leaves a gap between $1 million and $1.3 million between the to-do list and the money available to check things off it. Parks and Rec officials have suggested a bond issue could help fill the gap and pay for future parks, but admit such a bond issue — given discussion of a new library and other priorities — is unlikely in the near future.

As for new projects, there's $5.7 million needed for neighborhood parks and trails in newer parts of town that will be paid for with impact fees; and $42.4 million in bigger projects that will require additional funding not yet identified — likely through fundraising campaigns or grants.

Annual revenue from impact fees, paid by developers for infrastructure costs, are about a quarter of a million dollars short of what’s needed to meet that $5.7 million projection, parks officials say.

The $42.4 million in bigger projects the city would like to tackle at some point include priorities such as $9 million for a new park in the West Haymarket and $4.5 million to buy land for a trail corridor that follows the South Beltway.

The document, which will ultimately be approved by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, is used to help the department develop its capital improvement program, which will ultimately be part of the biennial budget included in the one proposed by the mayor and approved by the City Council.

The millions in upkeep listed in the plan is divided into priorities, which indicates just how far out on the horizon they sit.

Those marked as “A” are the highest priority and among those projects most likely to make it into the capital improvement program, which means they’d likely be completed within two years.

Those in the “B” category will likely be tackled in the next 3-6 years.

The “C” category includes the outliers in the seven- to 10-year range.

Most of the things added to the plan this year are in the B and C category, so although replacing the lights at Holmes and Ballard parks are now on the plan, it’s likely to be seven years or more before that happens. New ballfield lights at Sawyer Snell will happen a little sooner, in 3-6 years.

The $17.5 million of highest-priority projects — not all of which will make it into the next two-year budget — are heavy on hard-surface repairs of trails, parking lots and basketball courts, Yost said.

“That’s where our biggest backlog is,” he said. There’s so many, and, as you get behind, it’s so hard to get caught up.”

There are a few playground replacements or renovations ranked in the top priorities: Easterday, Stuhr and Belmont playgrounds, for example. Some already are included in the capital improvement plan.

Replacing the train-themed play piece in Iron Horse Park in the Haymarket is on the “A” list, as are resurfacing tennis courts in the Highlands and renovating the picnic shelter at Oak Lake Park.

Some of those priorities, of course, can change.

Replacing playground equipment at Antelope Park was a “B” priority, but recent discussions with advocates who want to see a new fully inclusive playground in Lincoln could move that up the list, said Parks and Recreation Director Lynn Johnson.

And all that planning is subject to the whims of fate: the swimming pool pump not on any plan that decides not to work when city staff fills up the pool in anticipation of summer.

“It just reminds me I’m not really in control,” Yost said.


Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler (7) is chased down by Nebraska's JoJo Domann (13) in the second quarter Saturday in Norman, Okla.


National
AP
US residents in Afghanistan hiding from Taliban
  • Updated

Every night in yet another house in Afghanistan's capital, a U.S. green card-holding couple from California take turns sleeping, with one always awake to watch over their three young children so they can flee if they hear the footsteps of the Taliban.

They've moved seven times in two weeks, relying on relatives to take them in and feed them. Their days are an uncomfortable mix of fear and boredom, restricted to a couple of rooms where they read, watch TV and play "The Telephone Game" in which they whisper secrets and pass them on, a diversion for the children that has the added benefit of keeping them quiet.

All of it goes on during the agonizing wait for a call from anybody who can help them get out. A U.S. State Department official contacted them several days ago to tell them they were being assigned a case worker, but they haven't heard a word since. They tried and failed to get on a flight and now are talking to an international rescue organization.

"We are scared and keep hiding ourselves more and more," the mother said in a text message to The Associated Press. "Whenever we feel breathless, I pray."

Through messages, emails and phone conversations with loved ones and rescue groups, AP has pieced together what day-to-day life has been like for some of those left behind after the U.S. military's chaotic withdrawal — that includes U.S. citizens, permanent U.S. resident green-card holders and visa applicants who aided U.S. troops during the 20-year war.

Those contacted by AP — who are not being identified for their own safety — described a fearful, furtive existence of hiding in houses for weeks, keeping the lights off at night, moving from place to place, and donning baggy clothing and burqas to avoid detection if they absolutely must venture out.

All say they are scared the ruling Taliban will find them, throw them in jail, perhaps even kill them because they are Americans or had worked for the U.S. government. And they are concerned that the Biden administration's promised efforts to get them out have stalled.

When the phone rang in an apartment in Kabul a few weeks ago, the U.S. green card holder who answered — a truck driver from Texas visiting family — was hopeful it was the U.S. State Department finally responding to his pleas to get him and his parents on a flight out.

Instead, it was the Taliban.

"We won't hurt you. Let's meet. Nothing will happen," the caller said, according to the truck driver's brother, who lives with him in Texas and spoke to him afterward. The call included a few ominous words: "We know where you are."

That was enough to send the man fleeing from the Kabul apartment where he had been staying with his mother, his two teenage brothers and his father, who was in particular danger because he had worked for years for a U.S. contractor overseeing security guards.

"They are hopeless," said the brother in Texas. "They think, 'We're stuck in the apartment and no one is here to help us.' They've been left behind."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Congress lastt week that the government does not track U.S. permanent residents with green cards in Afghanistan, but he estimates several thousand remain in the country, along with about 100 U.S. citizens. He promised the U.S. government was working to get them out.

As of Friday, at least 64 American citizens and 31 green card holders have been evacuated since the U.S. military left last month, according to the State Department. More were possibly aboard a flight from Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday, but the administration did not release figures.

Neither the U.S. nor the Taliban have offered a clear explanation why so few have been evacuated.

That is hardly encouraging to another green card holder from Texas, a grandmother who recently watched from a rooftop as militants pulled up in a half-dozen police cars and Humvees to take over the house across the street.

"The Taliban. The Taliban," she whispered into the phone to her American son in a Dallas suburb, a conversation the woman recounted to the AP. "The women and kids are screaming. They're dragging the men to the cars."

She and her husband, who came to Kabul several months ago to visit relatives, are now terrified that the Taliban will not only uncover their American ties but those of their son back in Texas, who had worked for a U.S. military contractor for years.

Her son, who is also not being named, says he called U.S. embassy officials in Kabul several times before it shut down, filled out all the necessary paperwork, and even enlisted the help of a veteran's group and members of Congress.

He doesn't know what more he can do.

"What will we do if they knock on the door?" the 57-year-old mother asked on one of her daily calls. "What will we do?"

"Nothing is going to happen," replied the son.

Asked in a recent interview if he believed that, the son shot back, exasperated, "What else am I supposed to tell her?"

The Taliban government has promised to let Americans and Afghans with proper travel documents leave the country and to not retaliate against those who helped the United States. But U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said there is evidence they are not keeping their word. She warned Monday that the country had entered a "new and perilous phase," and cited credible reports of reprisal killings of Afghan military members and allegations of the Taliban hunting house-to-house for former government officials and people who cooperated with U.S. military and U.S. companies.

AP reporters in Afghanistan are not aware of any U.S. citizens or green card holders being picked up or arrested by the Taliban. But they have confirmed that several Afghans who worked for the previous government and military were taken in for questioning recently and released.


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