Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, a mere 2.2%. It seems like great news, but the number also shouts that Nebraska has a severe labor shortage that weighs heavily on the state’s economy.
Many companies face major obstacles in delivering service at the needed level. The situation hinders businesses’ growth opportunities. This problem affects a broad range of the state’s economy: We have too few truck drivers and welders, not enough restaurant workers and nurses, shortages of contractors and software writers.
This labor scarcity hinders the growth potential for Nebraska communities. Indeed, for some communities it casts a shadow over their long-term survival.
Nebraska has a gubernatorial election next year. It’s a crucial moment for the state’s future. Campaigning has already begun. Surely the candidates’ TV ads and public statements call for collaborative statewide strategies to lift Nebraska’s economy and in the process address the labor shortage, right? No. Candidates so far are displaying little attention to the workforce issue.
We noted here recently that when 400 business leaders met in Kearney as part of the Blueprint Nebraska economic planning process, they named housing affordability and availability as the No. 1 concern statewide. It’s a huge problem affecting the state’s urban areas and rural communities alike. During 2010-20, some 26 Nebraska counties saw their housing supplies shrink, and only five counties grew their housing supply at a significant rate when measured against population growth.
So, the TV ads and public statements from gubernatorial hopefuls include economic approaches that can help address this concern, correct? No; only silence so far on that concern too.
What some candidates have focused on — intently — is critical race theory. Will Nebraska’s gubernatorial contest head down the same path as Virginia’s? That state held its gubernatorial election Tuesday, and political analysts pointed to critical race theory as a central issue.
Focusing on hot-button culture-war issues revs up voter anger, no question. Maybe such a political strategy can help a candidate win an election. But an aspirant for Nebraska governor would far better serve the state by doing something altogether different: Demonstrate the ability to bring Nebraskans together — urban, rural, from all backgrounds — to address our long-term needs.
Needs such as boosting the state’s ability to attract and retain newcomers. Housing affordability. Broadband access. Property tax solutions. Support for startups and entrepreneurs. Strategies to help small towns. Nurturing a welcoming atmosphere for all.
A particular word sums up the essential quality a candidate needs: leadership.
What defines leadership in regard to a governor? A maturity to look beyond short-term, self-serving political tactics and to focus on a state’s long-term needs. An enthusiasm for promoting consensus and collaboration — not ill will and division — to help the state move forward together. An ability to manage the large-scale apparatus of state government. A determination to build constructive government partnerships with sectors including private industry, the education community and nonprofits.
In Nebraska, a governor can serve up to eight years at a stretch. That’s a tremendous amount of time to affect the state’s future. Candidates have an obligation to set out their vision, up front, for Nebraska. Candidates who fail to do that disrespect the voters.
Gubernatorial contenders in 2022 must demonstrate they qualify for an all-important title: a public-spirited leader.