For years, Nebraska has lagged in terms of retaining and attracting young talent. Recently, the problem’s become more pronounced as thousands of residents are leaving every year for jobs and opportunities in other states.
In April 2018, a group of private and public partners, called Blueprint Nebraska, gathered to find out why and piece together a plan that could make Nebraska’s economy nationally competitive for years to come.
After 15 months of research, the group, started by then-president of the University of Nebraska Hank Bounds and Governor Pete Ricketts, released its plan last summer. The result, which included input from about 7,000 people either online or in-person at 60 different statewide events and oversight by 320 advisors, set goals for drastic change by 2030.
Over the next 10 years, leaders of Blueprint Nebraska aim to attract 43,000 young adults, add 25,000 more jobs and increase per-capita annual income by $15,000.
Former State Senator Jim Smith of Papillion heads the group as executive director. The organization also includes a 21-member steering committee co-chaired by Union Pacific Chairman Lance Fritz, of Omaha, and 21st Century Holdings President and CEO Owen Palm, of Scottsbluff.
Among high-priority steps to achieve that: realigning Nebraska’s tax strategy, promoting diversity and inclusion, upgrading transit, expanding internet access and rejuvenating community centers from the Main Streets of small towns to cultural hubs in major cities.
The details of that plan are contained in a 100-page report released on Blueprint Nebraska’s website, blueprint-nebraska.org. A 10-page summary is also available.There is no estimated cost in the report or explanation of how these initiatives could be paid for.
In forecasting Nebraska’s economy and building a long-term roadmap, researchers looked to make changes in four categories: people, places, government and industry.
Developing workforce and improving quality of life for minority populations are the two pillars of the “people” category.
Included in workforce development is the growing issue of thousands of jobs going unfilled due to workers having mismatched skills.
The report estimates that employment gap costs $11 billion in would-be wages and $824 million in tax revenues. Blueprint Nebraska’s solution is to have the most internships and apprenticeships per capita of any state in the Midwest to build skills and advance career paths.
Blueprint Nebraska also proposes to increase state funding for early childhood education and improve academic standards for students from kindergarten through college.
Aside from workforce development, the plan also focuses heavily on how to bring people to the state and make it more welcoming to minority communities.
Blueprint Nebraska cites studies from U.S. News & World Report, Move.org and Wallet Hub that rank Nebraska 48th in citizen equality, 40th in income gap by gender, 43rd in education gap by race, 48th in employment gap for disabled people, 37th in racial and ethnic diversity and 28th in inclusivity for LGBTQ+ families.
Solutions for the “people” category include establishing mentor programs, encouraging companies to make diversity a priority and improving programs for disadvantaged people — enhancing services for mental health, child care and homelessness being a few.
On the back of that, Blueprint Nebraska also wants to start a “Choose Nebraska” campaign that would work in tandem with other state advertising to attract and retain 18- to 34-year-olds.
For the “places” category, Blueprint Nebraska calls for a big investment in arts, entertainment and recreation across the state but specifically in rural towns, pointing to the success of Broken Bow’s multimillion-dollar revitalization as a model. The report also mentions increasing internet connectivity as well as building 30,000 to 50,000 new affordable homes. Less than half of people in extreme poverty have access to affordable housing, the report says.
It also notes transportation as a key issue. The report lists thousands of bridges that are either deficient or poor in quality while also stating the need for Omaha and Lincoln to have more modernized transit systems that include all-electric, bus-based rapid transit with dedicated lanes, driverless shuttles and shared electric car fleets. It also calls for an increase in in-state air travel as well as national service to tech cities such as Boston and Austin.
For a report replete with big-picture goals, its aim for government is no exception —make it simpler, more efficient and more effective. The report proposes a comprehensive review of all taxes and how to optimize them for growth.
In addition, the report calls on government to tighten up on incentive programs to both increase efficiency of business tax breaks and pass savings along to the state.
Among the goals of the report’s last category is to take advantage of existing industries that already have strengths in Nebraska as well as cultivate new ones where there’s weakness.
Though agriculture is Nebraska’s greatest economic asset, adoption and innovation of ag tech has trailed. The report’s plan includes marketing, infrastructure development and increased research and development to make ag tech a priority in the state.
In an effort to grow the state’s tech industry, Blueprint Nebraska also imagines creating tech clusters that will promote local entrepreneurship.
In 2020, Blueprint will enter its next phase — delivering concrete strategies based on proposals in its report. Six regional teams will devise these strategies and work in communities to bring even more volunteers and partners into the fold to develop concrete solutions to their goals. On Feb. 14, project leaders will meet with community members in Kearney to share information about their initiatives and seek guidance in prioritizing action.
To get involved or educate yourself on the plan, visit blueprint-nebraska.org.