Omaha’s economy appears to be doing well. As of July 2022, the unemployment rate for the metro area sits at 2.1%. Job growth has remained steady since the economy started recovering from the pandemic-induced economic downturn, and the number of Omahans in the labor force appears, slowly but steadily, to be returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Chris Decker, an economist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says a major factor in how Omaha’s economy has recovered is the decision by workers to upskill. Upskilling is the practice of learning additional skills, either in an existing or a new career path.
“During the 2020-21 period, enrollments at a lot of universities, including UNO, were pretty high,” Decker said. “You had a lot of people with low-paying jobs suffering an immediate hit and saying that was as good a time as any to go back to school and look for a different career path post-pandemic.”
That’s where the Workforce Innovation Division (WID) at Metropolitan Community College comes in. In 2014, Metro was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to launch a program to help IT students secure employment before they completed their degree. Lyndsie Gibbs, who oversees career advancement programs for WID, said the department’s creation stemmed from wanting to replicate that model for other professions.
WID’s programs work with people who have been out of the workforce for several years, face barriers to employment or are looking to upskill or reskill into a new job. Major Omaha businesses, including the SELDIN Company and Mutual of Omaha, hire students either during or after the program. Students can enroll with the goal of obtaining a certification or license. Gibbs said the program specifically targets jobs that pay around $18 an hour or more.
“Usually, during a recession, interest in education and training tends to increase,” Gibbs said. “We saw people wanting to do IT credentials, social media credentials, medical representatives, project management, pharmacy tech … all sorts of stuff.”
Gibbs said much of the heightened interest in career advancement programs was driven by a desire to find flexible remote work.
“A lot of folks came [to the program] from low-income, front-facing positions. The service industry, customer service … we still see folks coming in now because a lot of the front-facing service industry positions have been automated,” Gibbs said.
Education is fully funded for students who meet income guidelines, according to Gibbs, and scholarships are available for those who don’t.
Gibbs said helping students who face barriers to employment, which include prior criminal charges, immigration status, age and issues finding child care, can be challenging. She tries to be transparent with students and businesses about those barriers.
“We ask students about [any potential barriers] during the intake process, and our business partners tell us what barriers they can and can’t work with,” Gibbs said. “We have a workforce that is willing … but some of these barriers stop them before they can get a foot in the door.”
Gibbs believes that’s where their team’s strengths lie.
“We tell them what to expect when they go through the program –– but we don’t tell them they can’t do the program,” Gibbs said. “We work our tails off to find the right employer for a student.”
The program appears to be a success: Gibbs said 83% of students enrolled in the last six months of 2021 have retained employment. She calls the program Omaha’s best-kept secret.
“We’re one of the newest divisions, only about five years old, so we’re still the baby of the college,” Gibbs said.
WID aims to solve what Decker calls Omaha’s most important economic issue in the long run: the labor force. The percentage of metro-area citizens participating in the workforce has fallen by 5% since 2000. Decker says that’s because of an aging population that contributes to an increase in retirees.
“That puts pressure on businesses wanting to hire, which could narrow the cost-of-living advantage Nebraska has compared to other states. It’s a long-term dynamic that we need to address,” Decker said.
Gibbs sees her department as the right solution. She said the “earn-and-learn model” that WID employs allows a business to see an employee’s talents right away, as opposed to someone waiting a year to finish their education before getting hired on.
“A lot of cool stuff can happen when you start to see businesses invest in their talent pools,” Gibbs said. “These are businesses investing in their future workforce. That says a lot.”