How a Small Town Can Compete

Columbus, Nebraska, has been very successful in building a manufacturing economy. Now the town is trying to understand how it can continue to prosper.

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We have an unusual problem in Columbus, Nebraska. We’ve got too many jobs.

We’ve recruited people here to the Great Plains. (I wrote about our efforts in this Daily Yonder story.) But I checked the listings this morning and Columbus-area employers are looking for welders, engineers, salespeople, management, machine operators, retail clerks, instrument technicians, lab techs, crane operators, and lots of jobs in-between.  

Columbus isn’t alone in looking for workers. Many towns across the Great Plains are desperate for workers at the same time that people elsewhere are desperate for work. There are 13 pages worth of jobs on the Nebraska Department of Labor site today.  

We have an ongoing discussion in Columbus about solutions. How we bring people to this rural part of the Plains where the opportunities exist? How do we build a system that helps close that “skills gap” for employers while providing a sustainable standard of living for families?  

That puzzle simply must be solved.

This conversation has also raised questions about how this employment situation has arisen here and, just as importantly, can it last?  If we’re asking people to move to Columbus for jobs that might not exist in a year, well, that wouldn’t show much integrity.

To answer that question, I went right to the source.  I talked with Neal Suess and David Bell, the co-chairs of the Columbus Economic Council.  As the leaders of economic development efforts in the Columbus region, these two gentlemen are on the front lines of job creation in this area.  

I posed the questions to them: Why has manufacturing flourished here in rural Nebraska and what will be the economic driver in our region in the future?

Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce
Neal Suess and David Bell, the co-chairs of the Columbus Economic Council.
What I learned is that history matters. And so do economics. But, here, let Near Suess explain:

My personal opinion is that we are the beneficiaries of the work of a group of visionaries who began this effort 60 years ago.  Because they got Columbus out ahead of the pack (we had the first publicly-owned industrial park west of the Mississippi), we began to build some synergies in manufacturing that still serve us well today.  

David Bell puts it this way:  

The Columbus area has what I call the ‘Cluster Effect.’  In other words, we have reached a critical mass in labor skill-sets, suppliers, distribution channels, and ancillary businesses like machine shops that allows us to attract more manufacturing, and allows current companies to continue to succeed.  Many of the current manufacturers here don’t make a finished product, but rather create components, sometimes for other companies located near-by.

Neal suggested that the Columbus region has created success with manufacturing by continuing to work closely with our industries to make sure we understand their current and future needs.  We have always called on local industries to get personally involved in the process to help all of our manufacturers succeed.  

There is a spirit of collaboration among these people, even when they compete with each other for workforce, which has been a cornerstone of growing the local manufacturing economy.  So, while we’re certainly not “too big to fail,” the Columbus manufacturing economy has reached critical mass in some crucial areas that has helped keep that segment of our economy intact and growing.

And now, the even bigger question: Can it continue?  Can manufacturing in the U.S., in a small town in the Great Plains, really compete in a truly global economy?

Here’s what Neal said: 

I would agree that manufacturing can continue to be the basis of our economy, along with agriculture, and that we need to keep pace with the way manufacturing is changing.  Manufacturing today is not like what it was 20 years ago and we have to make sure we are prepared for what it will look like 20 years from now.  (The same holds for agriculture, by the way.)  Technology and human needs are changing the way the manufacturing process works and we will need to be able to adapt to this and find that skilled workforce in the future.

 David’s take: 

Manufacturing in the U.S. will face challenges, but there will certainly be winners. Columbus is positioned to be one of the winners because of the “cluster effect,” the existing critical mass of manufacturing that is here today.

I’d say those sentiments would be echoed by almost anyone in our area.  While manufacturing will look very different in the future, the existing supply and distribution resources, the existing “manufacturing culture” in our workforce, the spirit of collaboration that we take such pride in…these factors have positioned Columbus to continue to grow economically on the twin pillars of agriculture and manufacturing.

The only caveat to that statement, just to bring us full circle, is that without a sufficient skilled workforce then we  are destined to lose.  If we allow that to happen, we would lose our job creators, then lose that “critical mass,” and then we’ll lose our tax base and our community infrastructure.  

Thus, the challenge of workforce development is much more than an academic exercise.  It is a big part of determining the future of this and other rural places.  

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

 

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