Grand Island business leaders listed workforce and housing as their top concerns during a meeting with Nebraska Chamber staff Thursday at the Riverside Golf Club.
The meeting was sponsored by the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry. More than a dozen people attended the hourlong meeting where they focused on concerns and opportunities that need to be addressed to keep the community growing.
At the meeting, Nebraska Chamber staff members quizzed the business leaders on what is happening in the community in an effort to identify how to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead.
Those attending the meeting also brought up those amenities that promote a better quality of life and standard of living for the community, such as recreational opportunities, as something to build on to bring new people and retain those already here.
Need for workers widespread
Anyone driving through Grand Island can see the many signs that are posted by businesses seeking workers. Grand Island’s unemployment rate is 2.6% with 1,122 listed as unemployed in July by the Nebraska Department of Labor. To attract employees, many employers have raised wages by 50% or more from what they were before the pandemic and are offering signing bonuses to attract workers.
At the same time, Grand Island’s economy is booming as taxable sales this year have been averaging more than $100 million per month. That amount of taxable sales is not common during the spring and summer months, typically only seen during the holiday season. Grand Island’s economy has been averaging more than $1 billion in taxable sales in recent years, but fell below the $1 billion mark last year due to the pandemic. If taxable sales continue at their current pace, 2021 will be a record year for Grand Island’s economy.
Community business leaders said there’s an equal need for both skilled and unskilled workers. Solutions discussed focused on intensifying local attempts to increase training to develop a pool of skilled workers and, at the same time, help retain young people from migrating out of the community to look for better opportunities once they graduate from high school.
Grand Island Public Schools and Central Community College, both represented at Thursday’s meeting, have helped to lead the way in training young people for jobs that are in demand in the community.
Another solution was to open up the community to more immigrants who are seeking work and who want to make America and Grand Island a home for their families for generations to come.
With Grand Island’s growing number of immigrants, they have helped contribute to the increase in taxable sales in the community during the last decade or more, along with supplying the community with labor skills that are in demand.
Business leaders at the meeting said Grand Island is ahead of the curve in opening its doors to immigrants. People from more than 30 different countries now live and work in Grand Island and are contributing to the prosperity of the community.
No housing, no workers
Housing was identified as the second leading problem facing Grand Island. Many of the business leaders spoke of trying to hire people to come work for them only to have those individuals turn down the job offer because they could not find housing in the community.
While there are many obstacles facing the housing industry, such as supply chain and labor problems, one of the biggest barriers is housing costs. Starter homes that have been built new were priced between $150,000 to $175,000 several years ago. But similar homes are now selling for more than $250,000, which is a challenge for a family making the average annual household income for Grand Island of $61,000.
An indicator of Grand Island’s strong housing demands is the fact that homes offered up for sale are now staying on the market for less than a week in many cases.
One of the business leaders at the meeting said Grand Island is estimated at being about 1,000 housing units, both purchased and rental properties, short of the current demand. That same person also said it is estimated that nearly 300 new homes or rental units are needed yearly to meet the current demand.
Child care also needed
In a second tier of needs and challenges in Grand Island, business leaders listed child care, transportation and taxes and regulations as challenges facing the community. In many cases, they commented, child care takes a large amount of a working family’s income on a weekly basis. That leaves those families with less disposable income, especially considering how the market and supply chain pressures are driving costs up for food, transportation and housing.
A number of solutions were discussed, such as the government subsidizing families’ child care costs or finding private sector solutions with businesses providing incentives to their workers to cover the cost of child care.
Same issues across the state
Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, said that workforce and housing needs are problems communities throughout Nebraska are facing.
Johnson said workforce needs and housing are connected “because if we don’t have available housing within the area, then we won’t have the ability to bring workers here.”
She said many people know the problems facing the community, but what is needed is solutions, with an action plan to address those challenges.
Holley Salmi, vice president of the Nebraska Chamber, said they are going around to communities throughout the state asking business leaders what are on their list of concerns when it comes to keeping Nebraska growing.
Salmi said that at prior meetings many of the same concerns were brought up by local business leaders.
She said they are going to compile the information from the various meetings and send it to chamber members across the state to let them know the current concerns that are on the minds of communities and that the pandemic, which is still ongoing, has changed the way business is being conducted.
Johnson also said the information compiled at these meetings will go to state legislators before they convene for their next legislative session in January.
For example, she said legislators can get a sense from the information gathered at these state Chamber meetings about how the lack of housing is negatively affecting communities across the state and look at various incentives to encourage more housing development.
Last year, many companies either delayed or discontinued plans to expand in Grand Island because of the pandemic. While many new businesses are coming to Grand Island, as evidenced by the construction going on throughout the community, labor and material needs because of the supply chain dilemma are holding back a lot of potential construction.
While Johnson and the business leaders at Thursday’s meeting have concerns about some of the short-term problems facing the community, what they don’t want to see are those concerns becoming major barriers to Grand Island’s future growth. They are optimistic as Grand Island has increased its status as both a regional trade and medical center, as well as a leading community in manufacturing and construction.
Leaders still optimistic
To add to the optimistic outlook to the community’s business leaders, Nebraska’s leading economic indicator rose in August, according to the most recent report from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The leading indicator is designed to predict economic activity six months into the future.
The leading indicator rose 0.79%, reversing a small decline of 0.2% in July.
“The rising indicator suggests that the Nebraska economy will continue to grow through the first quarter of 2022,” said economist Eric Thompson, director of the Bureau of Business Research and K.H. Nelson Professor of Economics. “The leading indicator improved due to an increase in manufacturing and construction activity and strong expectations among businesses in general.”
Those leading indicators, such as manufacturing and construction, are evident in Grand Island as manufacturing companies here are now looking for workers to help them meet the growing demand for their manufactured products made here.
Thompson said the six components of Nebraska’s leading economic indicator are business expectations, building permits for single-family homes, airline passenger counts, initial claims for unemployment insurance, the value of the U.S. dollar and manufacturing hours worked. Three of the six components rose during August, while the other three changed little.
Building permits for single-family homes rose during August after declining in early summer due to employee and material shortages.
“The August increase suggests construction businesses are adjusting to supply challenges facing the industry,” he said. “Permits declined sharply in June and July due to challenges in finding workers and obtaining building materials.”
By contrast, the increase in manufacturing hours worked reflects steady improvement throughout 2021.
Thompson said the manufacturing sector continues to benefit from strong consumer demand, especially for meat and other food products manufactured in Nebraska.
One business leader at Thursday’s meeting said that businesses need additional workers, if only to relieve their current workforce who are having to work many hours of overtime to meet demand.
“Both goods- and service-sector businesses expect conditions to improve in the coming months as consumer spending and business investment continue to grow,” Thompson said.