About a million Nebraskans are working, according to the state Department of Labor. At 2.8 percent Nebraska’s unemployment rate is fourth lowest in the country. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing.
“It can restrict job growth somewhat,” said Eric Thompson, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln economist and director of the University’s Bureau of Business Research. “Obviously, a low unemployment rate in part reflects that there’s not a lot of slack in the labor market and that there’s relatively few typically employed workers are out there and available to join a new job. On the other hand, I think it’s a big positive signal about our labor market. Nebraska typically has lower unemployment rates than most other states in good times and bad times for the U.S. economy, and I think that’s a signal about the quality of our labor force.”
Occupations that have traditionally involved a lot of repetitive work are declining in numbers. These are manufacturing, but also some administrative and secretarial jobs, victims of automation.
“As that’s gone away, we’ve seen something of a bifurcation of those workers, with some workers retraining or otherwise finding new employment in higher skill occupations and then some of those workers being reemployed but perhaps in lower skill occupations since the skill they’ve learned over their lifetime is no longer in demand,” Thompson said.
At the same time there’s still a need for manufacturing workers, and efforts to show the next generation that these jobs are not what they used to be.
“It’s a lot cleaner, you come in, they’re actually working with computers and machines more so now,” said Phil Baker of the Nebraska Department of Labor.
One measure of “what’s hot,” job-wise, is something the state Department of Labor calls H3 occupations: high demand, with lots of openings and growth; high skill, requiring a high school degree, and sometimes a college degree and more; and high wage. It’s a wide-ranging, sometimes surprising list that includes software developers, nurses, truck drivers, machinery mechanics and some jobs connected to construction.
“What we’re seeing is there’s a real need for electricians,” Baker said. “It used to be electricians maybe weren’t paid as much, but now that’s a very good occupation. Very good technical occupation. Carpenters is another one, because construction’s growing.”
Another area seeing growth nationally is producer services. These are jobs for businesses serving other businesses, services like information technology, accounting and engineering. Thompson said it’s a leading source of high wage job growth, but that growth is slower in Nebraska than other parts of the country.
“It’s just not clear to me why we lag behind,” Thompson said. “It could be related to our traditional focus on goods-producing industries. It could be related to the fact that we’ve been having trouble retaining college graduates. Could be our location more in the middle of country, rather than on the east and west coast, where there might be higher demand for these services, but it’s a challenge that would benefit us to solve.”
There’s no doubt traditional retail is changing with the growth of online shopping. Jobs were lost as ShopKo, K-Mart and smaller stores closed. But WalMart still employs about 9,600 Nebraskans and is one of the state’s top 10 largest employers.
“When you go to check-out stands, a lot of them now have self-checkout,” Baker said, “and so you’re seeing a little bit more of that. Probably where they’ll still see some growth or some (pretty stable) employment levels would be the stocking of the shelves. It’s going to be hard to say how the Amazons are going to affect this.
What may the next couple decades look like for Nebraska job seekers and employers?
“I think we’ll continue to see the growth in the tech jobs,” Baker said, “and I think we’ll start seeing the education system working a little bit more with the businesses as we go out to help spur that along.”
“I think it’s going to be a challenging environment and a rewarding environment because of technology, because of competition,” Thompson said. “There is going to be increased pressure on all of us at work. On the other hand, I think those who are fortunate or skilled or hardworking and are able to take advantage of the changing economy, sort of become the masters of technology, the rewards could be quite strong.”