Despite the outsized role Omaha and Lincoln often seem to play in our state’s economic climate, much of our strength has long been firmly rooted in the smaller communities dotted throughout Greater Nebraska. Even so, many of these communities are struggling to remain economically viable as they confront population loss, decreasing agricultural revenues, housing shortages and related infrastructure concerns.
Amidst all these issues, one of the most persistent themes revolves around the growing workforce shortage in rural Nebraska. Simply put, state and local economic development authorities often point to insufficient numbers of skilled workers for available jobs as a major obstacle in recruiting new businesses or encouraging existing businesses to expand in the state. It’s also why more and more communities are widening their thinking about what it takes to develop, attract and retain local talent – especially persons who are of the prime age to raise families, start businesses and deepen the labor pool in rural Nebraska.
In Wayne, located in northeast Nebraska, these challenges aren’t always top-of-mind when viewed against the community’s lively business environment, diverse employer base, educational opportunity and overall quality of life. Persons of prime working age (20 to 54 years) represent just over 47% of the local population. But given a county unemployment rate that sits at 2.1%, there is very little slack in the local labor market to fill open positions. That can have a profoundly negative effect on business recruitment, growth and local economic activity.
For Luke Virgil, Executive Director of Wayne Area Economic Development, confronting this challenge depends on the ability to make the community, and participation in its workforce, more accessible and desirable to current and returning (“boomerang”) residents. “There is a real appeal to returning or remaining long term in the community that raised you,” he notes. “But that requires a good job, a place to live, and in most instances of young families, opportunities for high-quality early child care.”
Like other Greater Nebraska communities, an important aspect of Wayne’s continued growth focuses on housing development projects to spur workforce growth—efforts that will gain some momentum through a new grant from the Rural Workforce Housing Investment Fund. Complementing housing is the need for a robust early childhood infrastructure that can meet the needs of young, working parents. According to Virgil, housing and child care affect a worker’s decision to remain in, or relocate to Wayne more than other factors, including wages.
"...[I]t's not surprising that potential residents and workers might pass on a relocation opportunity when considering a community where options for quality child care are already maxed out."
The child care issue hit home for Virgil in 2017, when he accepted a new job in Wayne. As the parents of two young children, Virgil and his wife were required to navigate the local options for high-quality early care and learning environments.
"As we started the transition to Wayne, child care was our first priority. We made multiple inquiries with providers and references before finding the right fit for our family," recalls Virgil. "Transitioning from Laurel [20 minutes from Wayne], our familiarity with the community afforded us some insight on the child care options. If we had been unfamiliar with the community, or had been transitioning from a much farther distance, the process might have been more daunting. With that in mind, it's not surprising that potential residents and workers might pass on a relocation opportunity when considering a community where options for quality child care are already maxed out."
According to Nebraska Health and Human Services records, Wayne County currently has 18 licensed child care centers with a combined capacity of 379 children. According to the City of Wayne Comprehensive Planning Program – 2027, local residents rated available child care quality between “Fair” and “Good” on a 4-point scale. Still, the community is making progress on this front. Recently, Wayne Community Schools opened a new preschool program to serve 3- and 4-year-olds, helping to address one of the more significant gaps in the city’s child care profile while meeting quality standards known to promote children’s developmental outcomes. Local educators note the new center is already showing evidence of lowering special education placement among children entering kindergarten. It’s one piece of a larger puzzle to show parents that Wayne is a viable place to live and work.
“If you are trying to get ‘boomerang’ residents to locate in your town, access to child care will be a huge influencer on whether or not they choose to move back,” says Virgil. “We have to make it easier for people to choose Wayne by narrowing that gap. If we do that, Wayne will win more than it loses.”
1. Lemke, K. Economic and Demographic Trends: Wayne, Wayne County and the Surrounding Area. Nebraska Public Power District, April 2016. http://govdocs.nebraska.gov/epubs/P8400/S002.8516.html
2. Press Release: Office of the Governor of Nebraska. Gov. Ricketts, Economic Development Announce Rural Workforce Housing Fund Recipients. May 1, 2018. https://governor.nebraska.gov/press/gov-ricketts-economic-development-announce-rural-workforce-housing-fund-recipients
3. Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Child Care Licensed Facilities and Capacities. http://dhhs.ne.gov/publichealth/Pages/crl_childcare_map.aspx
4. Hanna:Keelan Associates, P.C. City of Wayne, Nebraska. Comprehensive Planning Program—2027. March 2017. http://www.cityofwayne.org/compplan