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Grand Island economy begins to emerge from COVID-19 pandemic slump

Grand Island economy begins to emerge from COVID-19 pandemic slump

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A sure sign that Grand Island’s economy is emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic-caused business slump is the number of help wanted signs around town.

Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 700 businesses in the community, said in December there were more job postings with Workforce Development than unemployed individuals.

Grand Island’s unemployment rate that month was 4.4%. There were 43,735 people in the labor force, with 41,794 employed and 1,941 unemployed.

“We have businesses which are growing operations,” Johnson said.

She gave numerous examples of some of Grand Island’s largest employers, such as the Case IH plant, Chief Construction, JBS and others, that are looking for employees.

“Last year, there were a lot of projects that were in the pipeline that were stopped and they are going to break loose this year,” Johnson said. “A lot of our companies that have been holding their own might be looking for additional people this year.”

She said she is expecting Grand Island’s unemployment rate to be down as the new year starts “because there are more companies that are picking back up.”

“It feels like things are ramping back up,” Johnson said.

Many local companies may be hiring more than what is being anticipated, she added.

Grand Island’s economy is tied directly or indirectly to agriculture, which is seeing a greater demand of its products and services, Johnson said.

Most of Grand Island’s economy is tied into jobs in the retail, food, lodging and service industries. The pandemic because of public health restrictions adversely affected employment in those areas last year. It also impacted Grand Island’s tourism industry, another large employer in the community.

In 2019, Grand Island had $1.082 billion in sales tax collections, of which more than $700 million came from the retail, food and accommodation businesses in the community. These were among the hardest hit businesses during the height of the pandemic.

Johnson said that she had heard from a number of businesses last year that between people sick as a result of the virus and those quarantined due to exposure to the virus, it was challenging to find people to work, especially as the government added extra money to unemployment benefits to help people economically. In many cases, those added benefits were more than individuals were making while working at their jobs.

“It was challenging just to keep their doors open,” she said.

Looking ahead to a post-pandemic economy, Johnson said she has visited with a number of Grand Island’s major employers about the impact technology will have on future job employment. One major employer told Johnson that artificial intelligence will be driving manufacturing output more and more in the future.

She said many employers believe that new technological advances, such as AI and greater automation, will be needed to keep up with growing global demand for the products they manufacture.

“If we don’t have the people, then business will look toward another solution,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, innovation and robotics are going to play a role in that solution.”

She said without area manufacturers looking to new technological innovations to help them remain competitive, they will either have to outsource, relocate or move production from one site to another if they can’t meet their production needs in Grand Island.

“I welcome their innovation and investing in robotics or automation or something along those lines because at least we are keeping those jobs in Grand Island,” Johnson said.

She said this isn’t “job replacement.”

“Technology, in this regard, doesn’t have to be threatening to staff or about hiring fewer people, but about meeting the customers’ demand that they have,” she said.

Some Grand Island businesses already are using new technology to make their businesses more efficient and competitive, Johnson said. Many businesses are training their employees to use the software advancements they have employed at their businesses.

“This equipment is going to help them meet their customer demands,” she said. “They will hire people. They will retrain people. The skill sets will be different and, in most cases, they are going to be higher skill sets.”

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