NORFOLK, Neb. – It is a topic discussed every day at Northeast Community College, but workforce development was front and center during a public forum Friday on the institution’s Norfolk campus.
Northeast partnered with the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce to host one of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s virtual fall legislative forums. The events are being held this month across Nebraska on the state’s community college campuses.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged everyone, Nebraska Chamber President Bryan Slone cited several areas that have helped set the state apart from others in the seriousness of its impact. That includes the quick processing of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to businesses by financial institutions, the work of the state’s hospitals, medical and first responders, and health departments, and the fact there has been no stay-in-place order issued.
“Another area that is helpful is our industry makeup,” Slone said. … “All of those industries were affected by the pandemic, but not as much as certain other industries, like services and hospitality which really got hit hard. Our economy and what our economy is built on is actually going to survive this fairly well.”
Nebraska is poised to be in a position to take advantage of what follows the pandemic. Slone said individuals who have been working remotely will continue to do so in the future – which will allow people to live and work anywhere they want. He said this could attract more families who desire a place that affords a quality of life that Nebraska has to offer.
However, there are challenges that need to be tended to. Slone said even during the pandemic Nebraska continues to experience a workforce shortage.
“We have manufacturing companies who are literally turning down business because they can’t find workers even in this pandemic environment.”
Other issues that need to be addressed, according to Slone, are the impact the pandemic has had on childcare - which has a direct correlation to workforce development, the need to rebuild the hospitality industry, and develop opportunities to rebuild the manufacturing supply chain domestically.
Leah Barrett, president of Northeast, spoke of the work that is underway at the college that can help address many of the issues Slone discussed. She said all parties must align and be intentional with one another in order to move forward.
“Nebraska’s community colleges are a major economic stimulus for building the state’s skilled workforce,” Barrett said. “We, as the six colleges, prepare students to enter high skilled, high wage, high demand occupations. … We are poised to support and lead in multiple economic and workforce development priorities. It’s our statutory obligation and these are our communities. We want them to prosper.”
Barrett reviewed several initiatives that Northeast has undertaken such as collaborating with its higher education partners on early childhood initiatives; youth apprenticeships and its work with high school students; and programs that prepare the college itself to be supportive of ag producers, manufacturers, and consumers.
Others include programs that are specifically tailored to meet industry needs in manufacturing maintenance; an exploration of innovative opportunities to build a pipeline of qualified information technology workers; working with local internet providers to increase access and stability of broadband connectivity across the region; and the institution’s involvement in building and retaining northeast Nebraska’s workforce by collaborating with the Northeast Nebraska Growing Together initiative.
Slone called the latter project that is working, in part, to attract and retain young individuals and their families, as a top issue for not only the region, but the entire state.
“This is our future. Infrastructure, how we rebuild our communities is part of that,” he said. “There are going to have to be some very large public-private partnerships, just like in this community, built around ‘how do we rebuild our downtowns and how we rebuild the infrastructure in our communities to be attracted specifically to 18-34-year-olds?’”
He also called the community colleges an “important partner” in the work they have undertaken by providing young people transparent opportunities to seek out careers. Slone was impressed with the number of Northeast graduates who remain in Nebraska after graduation.
“When you see those numbers of 86% staying in the state and you see the effect that community colleges have in terms of workforce and attracting these 18-to-34 years, I think you can understand why they are such an important partner.”
Jim Smith, executive director of Blueprint Nebraska, which has developed a statewide plan for economic growth and competitiveness, spoke on the group’s 15 signature initiatives. Initiatives range from increasing broadband access and promoting diversity and inclusion to realigning Nebraska’s tax strategy and the launch of a “Choose Nebraska” campaign, among others.
Smith said his group will be meeting with partners in the coming weeks to create solutions to work collaboratively on the initiatives – many of which fall in line with what has been discussed at this month’s Chamber forums.
“We see the path forward is to convene groups after we inventory, collaborate and build these collaborative partnerships,” he said, “and then connect stakeholders with shared interests going forward.”
Barrett said as Northeast Community College looks to the future, its strategic direction will be built on supporting its 20-county service area through ensuring access and advancing partnerships with industry, other higher education institutions, elected officials, and community leaders to support the region.
“Activities at Northeast will provide renewed opportunity for the college to engage not only traditional learners, but also post-traditional learners who want to change course or begin anew,” she said. “Engaging with employers to identify ways Nebraska’s community colleges can partner to elevate entry level workers to mid or high-level jobs is critical for economic mobility and regional vitality. Northeast Community College is ready to be a partner.”
Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, speaks during a virtual legislative forum Friday that originated at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. Similar events are being held this month across Nebraska on the state’s community college campuses.