This story is part of a larger package for The Reader and El Perico’s December issue about the state’s tight labor market.

Nebraska’s never a state to stand out.

In most datasets you can count on Nebraska’s position matching its geography — dead in the middle of everyone else. Blending in.

But there’s one statistic we consistently lead the nation in: unemployment.

As of October 2021, Nebraska didn’t just have the lowest unemployment in the United States — it had the lowest ever recorded at 1.9% of the workforce out of a job. Typically, that’s a sought-after statistic that, among others, puts Omaha as U.S. News & World Report‘s 25th best place to live in the country.

But there’s a flipside. This year we’ve heard more about the tight labor market than ever before — largely due to the pandemic-sized crater still stuck in our economy. More people are changing career paths, going back to school or simply not going back to the jobs they had before. Suddenly it seems there are more job openings than there are eligible candidates, and if you own a business in a place like Nebraska our ultra-low unemployment rate means you feel the squeeze even tighter and have fewer people in the labor force pool to pick from.

As a result, many are either struggling to fill jobs or simply shutting down.

For this issue, The Reader wanted to know why.

Why are people not going back to their old jobs, and where are they going instead?

The question led us to picket lines and signature drives, to interviews with academics and union officials. But no matter where you go, everyone is saying the same thing: The way we work has to change.

Though Nebraska has a higher minimum wage than the federal standard, it still barely pays enough to stay out of poverty. And even when people make good wages, they sometimes lack good working conditions. With too little motivating them to stay, young, educated people are also leaving the state and taking jobs with them. And even the people who choose to stay can sometimes face barriers to finding good jobs depending on their backgrounds.

We want to introduce you to the people trying to address these challenges. The solutions they’re proposing span from raising the minimum wage to addressing the inequality present in our workforce, but they all have a common message. These problems aren’t new. The pandemic may have agitated them, but fixing them isn’t just a Band-Aid for the time being. If we want to push Nebraska forward and create a better workforce for the future, we need to think bigger.

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Chris has worked for The Reader since January 2020. As an investigative reporter and news editor he’s taken deep dives into topics such as police transparency, affordable housing and COVID-19. Originally...

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