Getting Workers to Columbus

Columbus, Nebraska, has a problem. The rural town has jobs, but it can't find workers to fill them. Columbus officials have gone on recruiting missions to find new residents, but they've discovered that there are reasons people can't move.

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A striking juxtaposition of two starkly different realities was set in front of me this week.  

First, a member of our Chamber staff sent me a link to an ABC News story about tent cities popping up around the nation as the jobless become homeless.  Second, in response to a question from a committee, I looked up the number of available jobs for my hometown, Columbus, Nebraska.

As of today, the Nebraska Department of Labor lists 1,288 jobs available within 10 miles of Columbus.  We have been very fortunate that local manufacturers have continued to expand and the agricultural economy has been healthy as well.  We promote Columbus as the “most industrialized city” in Nebraska, boasting more than 6,000 manufacturing jobs in our community of 21,000.  Our unemployment rate in Platte County in November was 3.1 percent.

We need every kind of skill: Information systems analysts, welders, registered nurses, crane operators, sales, quality engineers. The list goes on. All the jobs are available today, and many have been open for some period of time.  Columbus employers tell me on a regular basis how difficult it is to find qualified people to fill their jobs.

Job fairs, Columbus holds them. The Nebraska town has hundreds of openings for skilled workers.
At the same time, the media report on tent cities going up around the nation as people who can’t find work lose their homes. The national unemployment sits at 8.5%, there are 5.6-million long-term unemployed in the U.S., and 8.1-million people are working part-time because they can’t find full-time employment.

How can this be? Why aren’t they coming to Columbus or some other towns on the Great Plains that are begging for workers? 

Columbus started thinking about this issue almost 10 years ago.  Six years ago, the Columbus Area Chamber’s Workforce Development Task Force created the “Drive for Five,” hiring a full-time coordinator to lead an initiative to recruit or retain 500 workers in three years.  After three years, it was clear that the effort had to continue, so the “Drive” now has a goal of adding 5% to the county workforce every two years.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk to some of these “long-term unemployed” face-to-face.  The “Drive for Five” took two recruiting trips to Northern Michigan, identifying a region with high unemployment that was geographically and culturally similar to ours.  We talked with people who had been out of work for months or years, with no expectation of employment in their immediate future. We wanted these workers to move to our community. While more than 30 people did move here as a result of those visits, that’s not nearly enough.

Visiting teachers stand in front of a wind tower section built at Katana Summit, which is trying to hire 100 new welders.
These were skilled people, with talents that are highly sought-after in many places, including Columbus, Nebraska.  As a result of those visits and others, we have learned at least some of the reasons this dichotomy continues to exist in America: the split between tent cities of unemployed and jobs-gone-begging on the Great Plains.  

I would offer a few recurring themes that we heard in small towns in northern Michigan, which you would likely hear in Ohio, Illinois, California, Nevada or other high-unemployment states.

Most often, because many of these folks have been unemployed for a long time they have expended virtually all their resources.  So, if you ask them to fund a move to Nebraska, you might as well ask them to fund a relocation to the moon. The money simply isn’t there.  

The next challenge many of these families faced was owning a home in a market in which, well, the market no longer exists.  If they had managed to hold on to their house, they knew there was no way to sell it and they clearly could not afford just to leave it behind and start paying rent, much less a second mortgage. Job or no job, they weren’t going to leave their unsold, and unsellable, houses.

Columbus Days celebration in 2009.
So, we have skilled people, desperate for a job in many places around the U.S. They aren’t lazy. They just can’t find a way to make the move. At the same time we have employers, desperate for skilled people, in many other places around the U.S., many in rural communities.  

For the good of the nation and the good of those families, we need to work toward a solution.  

We have suggested to our Congressman, Adrian Smith, (and anyone else who would listen) that somehow federal unemployment benefits could be structured to allow people to take “an advance” on their benefits to use for relocation to a place where they can find work. In this way, the government can stop paying unemployment benefits, an employer gets a needed employee to help keep jobs in our country, and most importantly, a family gets a steady full-time income to support itself.

Recent research by Gallup shows that across the globe, the number one desire of mankind is a good job.  Columbus, Nebraska, and other places like it have those jobs.  Now, we have to find a way to get people here to take those jobs and create a brighter future for themselves and for rural America!

K.C. Belitz is president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce.

 

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