How we can grow Nebraska

Originally published in the Columbus Telegram

This week is a great real-life illustration of how the lines between economic development, community development and workforce development continue to fade.

There was a time when economic development was seen as a fairly “hard” science: Available land; cheap electricity; available buildings; low labor cost. That formula worked really, really well for Nebraska and specifically for the Columbus area for 70 years.

Meanwhile, community development was more “touchy-feely:” community organizing, meeting our neighbors, personal development, community events, charitable pursuits and the like.

Traditionally, the two didn’t mix. That’s why many places have separate economic development organizations and Chambers of Commerce, even though the work seems similar to most people.

But then workforce needs emerged as the trend of fewer rural Nebraskans and retiring baby boomers collided in dramatic fashion. And as the trends have accelerated in the past five years, business’ need to attract talent and communities’ need to attract residents have, in my opinion, changed the game. This phenomenon has brought these disparate disciplines together into one, interconnected, pursuit.

So . . . back to this week.

Thursday morning, more than 250 people are going to Lincoln for the unveiling of a new report, “Elevating Nebraska’s Early Childhood Workforce: Report and Recommendations of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission.”

Developed over three years by the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, a group of more than 40 Nebraska public- and private-sector leaders, the report outlines the urgent need to prioritize the early childhood workforce in Nebraska. Speakers include educators and scientists, as you would expect, but also business leaders and Senator Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee.

Mere hours later, in the same building, hundreds of the state’s business leaders will gather at the Nebraska Chamber’s Annual Meeting and Legislative Caucus. Their agenda will include items you might expect like a presentation on manufacturing competitiveness, but one of three key sessions in the afternoon is “Education as a Driver of Workforce Development.”

You see the obvious synergy in these events and I would submit that synergy didn’t exist 10 years ago. But the challenge of workforce development has brought the opportunity of collaboration to Nebraska’s leaders in ways that wouldn’t have happened without that challenge. So there is the silver lining from this universal people attraction challenge faced by greater Nebraska.

And into the middle of all this I put the growing effort to leverage community assets through philanthropy. Nebraska Community Foundation and local NCF affiliates will be well-represented at both those events Thursday. And the following day, the NCF community development team will gather in McCook and much of our agenda that day is work in our communities that is focused in these same areas.

As the lines continue to blur, I think the potential for impact continues to grow. Nebraska will make more progress as we recognize that community development and philanthropy are a core part of today’s economic development practice. Nebraska will make more progress as we recognize that economic developers are part of the effort to make our communities more attractive.

I’ll be excited to report back to you with the outcomes from all this week’s events. And in the bigger picture, I’ll be even more excited to report back to you in 10 years on all the progress we’ve made in these areas as Nebraska professionals, leaders, communities and residents work together in a more integrated way.

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