2020 Outlook Promising, But Omaha Must Prepare


Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution speaks at the Greater Omaha Chamber’s Economic Outlook Luncheon at the La Vista Conference Center on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo by Scott Stewart)
By 
Scott Stewart
The Daily Record

La Vista – The Omaha metro area is starting to look a lot like the country’s top technology hubs – but in an undesirable way.

Income inequity in the greater Omaha now rivals those in tech-centered metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Seattle, New York and Washington, D.C. The earning gap between white workers and workers of color has Omaha ranked 93rd among 100 metros.

Attendees at the recent Economic Outlook Luncheon hosted by the Greater Omaha Chamber heard an analysis by Amy Liu, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. She discussed how Omaha area can position itself for future success.

“More progress is needed if greater Omaha inspires to be a hub of inclusive innovation benefitting all local residents,” Liu said. “The healthy economy in greater Omaha is not translating to better earnings for black and Hispanic workers, who are making up an increasing share of the region’s workforce.”

That’s a potential problem for Omaha’s economy as the nation’s workforce becomes more diverse and as technological disruption creates new opportunities for many people and businesses and destroys opportunities for others.

“That churn is going to occur as our workforce becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, which is a competitive asset if we embrace it or it can result in great vulnerabilities,” Liu said. “This is now a defining issue facing business, civic, government and economic development leaders across the country, and many business groups and chambers are actually leading the charge.”

At the national level, geographic division along economic, political and cultural lines has left smaller communities struggling to create enough critical mass to keep up with larger metro areas.

Fewer middle-class jobs are available, as most new jobs are created at the very high or very low ends of the pay spectrum.

In greater Omaha, 53% of jobs are low-wage, part-time or offer no benefits, Liu said. 

“It is really critical to focus on job quality,” Liu said.

The median hourly earnings for low-wage workers in Omaha is $10.18 an hour, with 39% of metro workers earning low wages.

Liu said part of the challenge is structural and unconscious bias in the hiring process.

Structural bias includes the preference that many employers show college-goers, even for positions that don’t require specialized learning, while unconscious bias includes using referrals to identify candidates – particularly when opportunities go to friends, family or associates without considering other qualified people.

Embracing more inclusive hiring policies is good for the economy, Liu said, because the economy expands when more people participate. Businesses also benefit from more innovation and access to a larger pool of workers.

“I would imagine that none of this data is news to you,” said David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber. “Our challenge is to make sure that (business leaders) continue to hear the message of what we need to do to become a best place in the country.”

Brown presented the results of a recent economic development survey of area business CEOs.

In the survey, nearly 70% said they expect sales revenue to grow higher in 2020. Attracting and retaining employees remained the most important factor for growth. 

A representative of Baird Holm LLP, one of the event’s sponsors, indicated in an insight video with other sponsors that the economy is still going strong into 2020.

“The demand for our services are still strong,” said Chris Hedican, a partner whose legal practice focuses on employee benefits and litigation. “We’ve done a lot of hiring, and we anticipate that we’ll continue to have strong growth next year.”

Recruiting is a challenge for many businesses, including in the legal industry, Hedican said. But having a strong local community helps attract and retain talent.

For more on the chamber’s 2020 economic outlook report, and to view the insights video, visit bit.ly/chambereo.

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