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SouthPointe Pavilions parking garage

Lincoln, NE - 5/20/2019 - Construction work continues on the new parking garage at SouthPointe Pavilions on Monday, May 20, 2019. GWYNETH ROBERTS, Journal Star

Even as cranes dot Lincoln’s skyline -- both downtown and elsewhere in the capital city -- the shortage of construction workers has only intensified since last year, according to a new report.

And that’s hard to do, given the climate of the industry in 2018. Last year’s survey by the Associated General Contractors of America found that 85% percent of firms surveyed reported difficulty hiring workers. The other 15%, meanwhile, weren’t seeking new employees at that time.

In 2019, AGC found that figure had crept up to 90% -- far exceeding the regional and national averages -- despite the Bureau of Labor Statistics finding a record number of construction workers in Lincoln.

As much of the state grapples with a scarcity of laborers that extends far beyond the construction industry, Nebraskans must seek solutions beyond the status quo. Two trends that merit serious discussion are an increased focus on trades in the state’s schools and a need for increased immigration in areas with documented worker shortages.

In this prolonged period of nearly full employment, perhaps no complaint is heard more frequently in the real estate business in this booming city than the shortage of construction workers.

Not every student needs to attend a four-year college to land a good-paying job, despite the rhetoric that sometimes exists. Community colleges and apprenticeships underscore the fact a bachelor’s degree isn’t required for a successful future.

Construction, though hard work, provides a ladder for dedicated workers to learn the ropes and accrue skills as they gain experience. In many instances, that creates the opportunity for entrepreneurs to create their own small businesses -- the kind of growth that fuels any local economy.

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Much of this problem rests with immigration policy, too.

In a visit to Lincoln last August, the former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services defended the White House’s move to a merit-based system that prioritizes “highly needed skills” and “people who come to help meet our economic or national needs or interests.”

The workers Lincoln needs most don’t align with this definition. An increase in work permits and visas would assuredly pair with a decrease in the region’s dearth of workers in fields such as construction, manufacturing and transportation.

This shortfall isn’t just limited to skilled trades, either; employers in the medical, agricultural and educational fields, among others, have increasingly struggled to find qualified workers as Nebraska’s workforce ages.

These gaps are magnified outside of the Lincoln and Omaha areas, too. The Columbus Telegram reported that the community has turned to locales as far afield as Puerto Rico in an attempt to fill some 800 vacancies in the city of 22,000.

As Nebraska aims to better fill its workforce in construction and other industries, it must rewrite prevailing narratives on education and immigration.

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