Workforce challenges prompt business leaders’ call for a more inclusive Nebraska

By Henry J. Cordes

Walk into the downtown branch of Wells Fargo in Omaha and the associate who greets you at the door is a former refugee from Sudan.

At the teller windows, a Latina woman works alongside a white Army veteran who is transitioning to a new career.

With the fast-changing demographic face of Nebraska and the nation, such diverse workplaces will inevitably become more common in Nebraska’s future. And that’s part of what’s prompted a drive by business leaders to urge Nebraska’s employers, policymakers and people to make a true commitment to diversity and inclusion.

For Nebraska to compete and prosper amid a worldwide shortage of skilled workers, business leaders say the state can’t afford to exclude anyone, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation or economic status.

“As we go forward, diversity and inclusion is not an option, it’s not something nice — it’s fundamental to the economic development of our state,” said Bryan Slone, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

But traditionally white and conservative Nebraska faces some challenges if it’s going to figuratively throw its arms wide open to workers everywhere. Nebraska at times comes up short when it comes to embracing people who are different.

Nebraska is among 25 states that have declined to enact state laws protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender workers from workforce discrimination, seen by some young workers as a touchstone on whether a state’s commitment to diversity is real. Nebraska Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is strongly opposed to such a law, which neighboring Iowa passed 13 years ago.

People of color in Nebraska disproportionately face economic, educational and job challenges. The state’s racial disparities in educational achievement are among the highest in the nation.

While Nebraska has a 150-year history as a landing spot for immigrants and refugees from around the world, refugee settlement and immigration aren’t universally welcomed.

Nebraska is no leader in reducing the historical pay gap for women, either.

For the state to prosper in the future, such things must change, said David Brown, CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. He says Nebraska can enjoy a competitive advantage if it creates a state where workers from all backgrounds thrive.

“We need to recognize we have a golden opportunity staring us in the face,” he said.

Business leaders and economic development consultants also say issues of diversity and inclusion are critical to competing for the tech-savvy, creative millennials whose talents are fueling much of the job creation and job growth around the country today.

“The younger population that is graduating from our universities cares deeply about diversity and inclusion,” said Lance Fritz, CEO of Union Pacific Railroad. “And they wonder when they look at our state whether we care about that as deeply as they do.”

To meet such challenges, the Omaha chamber has embraced diversity and inclusion in its current five-year economic development campaign. As part of that plan, the chamber in the past year launched a program encouraging Omaha businesses to adopt inclusive hiring practices.

The Omaha chamber is not the only business organization pushing more diversity in the workplace.

Diversity and inclusion have also been top of mind in the workforce initiatives being pushed by the nonprofit Aksarben Foundation. An Aksarben working group that’s tackling the state’s shortage of high-tech workers has been developing strategies designed to get more women, minorities and military veterans into tech jobs.

And the “Blueprint Nebraska” state economic development strategy developed by a panel of Nebraska business leaders last summer stressed the importance of diversity and inclusion. Putting it in broad and simple terms, Blueprint set a goal of making Nebraska “the most welcoming state in the Midwest.”

The roots of the diversity push are both practical and strategic.

It recognizes the changing face of Nebraska, where more than one in five residents are members of minority groups — almost triple the rate from three decades earlier. Filling Nebraska’s jobs of tomorrow will inevitably require tapping that ever-more-diverse population.

The inclusiveness push recognizes the rapid pace of cultural change when it comes to issues of gender, sexual orientation and sexual identity. For the latest example, look no further than last weekend’s Super Bowl, where an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers became the first woman and first openly gay person to coach in pro football’s championship game.

But the diversity push could at times run into political opposition in a historically red state like Nebraska. Issues like gay rights, immigration and refugee resettlement often lie along the fault line of the nation’s political divide.

Just last week, workplace protections for gay workers became a flashpoint when the Nebraska chamber for the first time endorsed such a law, prompting protests from Ricketts and some religious groups.

Nebraska also voted strongly in 2016 for Republican Donald Trump, who since taking office has slashed legal immigration and refugee resettlement, fought court decisions extending workforce protections to gay workers, and moved to strike the previous administration’s protections from deportation for “Dreamers” — the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who are now filling thousands of jobs in Nebraska and nationally.

But Nebraska’s traditionally conservative leanings make business leaders’ diversity and inclusion push all the more remarkable. It underlies concerns that without changes in employment practices, state policies and public attitudes, Nebraska could be economically left behind in the national battle for talent.

As an example of the perceived urgency, during a business summit on the state’s workforce challenges a year ago, leaders of some of Omaha’s fastest-growing startup companies were outspoken in arguing that Nebraska’s lack of legal job protections for gay workers was undercutting their firms’ efforts to attract talent.

“They were saying, ‘We have got to figure this out, because it’s killing us,’ ” said Hank Robinson, a University of Nebraska at Omaha researcher who has worked on Aksarben’s workforce initiatives. “We cannot recruit people to Omaha if we’re not truly welcoming of all based on race, color, creed or sexual orientation.”

The challenges

As recently as 1990, Nebraska’s population was nearly 93% white. Women’s move into the labor force had yet to peak. And most gay people were not open about their sexual orientation, with a Gallup poll just two years earlier showing most Americans still believed same-sex relationships among consenting adults should be illegal.

The past three decades have brought dramatic change on all those fronts.

Now not only are 1 in 5 Nebraskans members of minority groups, UNO’s Center for Public Affairs Research projects the figure will be nearly 1 in 3 by 2040. Similarly, by 2045, the United States is projected to become a “majority-minority” nation.

The racial shifts both here and nationally have largely been the result of a wave of Hispanic immigration from Mexico and Central America and the resettlement of refugees from strife-torn countries including Somalia, Sudan and Myanmar. The new arrivals, both the undocumented and those arriving legally, have often filled low-skill labor jobs that otherwise may have gone wanting.

Those immigrants have also played an outsized role in Nebraska’s population growth in that time. Now the second and third generations of that immigrant wave are being counted on to help fill Nebraska’s skilled jobs of today and tomorrow.

“We’re going to see a significant change in demographics in this market,” Brown said. “If we are going to be able to use that as a competitive advantage, both as employers and the community itself, we need to be more inclusive.”

But there are challenges to preparing the state’s increasingly diverse population for those jobs. People of color are far more likely to grow up in poverty, a major barrier to educational success.

Through privately funded scholarships and other programs targeting at-risk youths, Nebraska in recent years has markedly increased school success for people of color. The Omaha metro area’s black population now has a higher rate of college degree attainment than the national black average, a sharp reversal of the trend from a decade ago.

Still, in 2018 only 14 states had a wider gap than Nebraska between the percentage of its white population with college degrees and the college-educated percentage of its minority population. For young adults with associate degrees or more, the state’s minority/white disparity is the nation’s third-largest. Nebraska’s gap in per-capita income between whites and minorities is also above the national average.

When it comes to gender diversity, women have continued to play ever-bigger roles in the nation’s workforce.

While men still outnumber women when farmers and the self-employed are counted, women in December surpassed men within the nation’s payroll workforce. And women long ago overtook men on the nation’s college campuses, with 57% of all U.S. college graduates now women.

Those trends make quality child care, paid family leave and the gender pay gap front-line issues for states and employers looking to attract talent.

A report last month found that Nebraska is $450 million short of the funding needed to make quality child care widely available. Census data also shows Nebraska ranks in the middle among the states in the gap between its average pay for men and women.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers are also now a force that can’t be ignored.

Gallup polling has indicated 4.5% of Americans now identify as LGBT. That translates into roughly 8.1 million workers nationwide and about 41,000 in Nebraska. Among the millennial generation, the numbers may be even higher, with 7% of that generation identifying as LGBT in a 2017 study.

Employers are certainly taking notice. During gay pride month last June, Conagra Brands flew 34 rainbow flags along its main campus drive in Omaha. Conagra and Omaha-based TD Ameritrade also both recently received 100% scores for LGBT-friendly workplace policies and practices from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, an LGBT civil rights organization.

With backing from business, city leaders in Omaha and Lincoln nearly a decade ago passed ordinances giving LGBT workers the same protection against job discrimination that’s provided under state law for people based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status and national origin. However, the Nebraska Legislature has repeatedly rejected applying LGBT legal protections statewide, most recently last year.

Union Pacific’s Fritz, who co-chaired Blueprint Nebraska, has been an outspoken advocate of passing such a law. He said the railroad has seen in its recruiting the importance of inclusion when potential employees choose whether to make Nebraska home.

“If you are looking for the best of the best, it makes no sense to ignore any segment of the population,” Fritz said. “They have to feel they can bring their best self to Union Pacific, Omaha and Nebraska.”

Andrew Prystai, the 27-year-old co-founder of an Omaha startup called Event Vesta that launched a web app connecting people to community events, said he knows such laws can create concerns about new regulations for business. But he said for many young workers, the issue is an important barometer of whether a state’s commitment to inclusion goes beyond just words.

“For the future of our state, we need to get to that point,” Prystai said.

The role of millennials

When Fritz and other business leaders talk about issues of inclusion, they often mention the critical role of millennials like Prystai, and for good reason.

Millennials — born between 1981 and 1996 — are now the largest generation in the U.S. workforce, surpassing the baby boomers, who are fast moving into retirement, and Generation X. Five years from now, millennials are projected to make up 75% of the global workforce.

Notably for Nebraska, most millennials fall within the 18-35 age demographic that the state often struggles to attract or keep rooted here.

Additionally, employers are fast finding that millennials are very different from the generations of workers that preceded them.

The members of this new generation grew up in an interconnected world and are more likely to have friends who are not the same color they are or are openly gay. Not only are millennials more attuned to issues of inclusion, they often seek out diverse settings — including in the workplace.

A study two years ago by the Institute for Public Relations found that 47% of millennials consider the diversity and inclusiveness of a workplace as important criteria in their job search. That compared with 37% for boomers and 33% for Gen Xers.

“That generation, in a very positive sense, has an intention of living and working in a diverse environment,” the state chamber’s Slone said. “And that means diversity in its broadest sense — diversity in gender, age and race, but also diversity in experience, cultures and nationality.”

The good news for employers is that not only can embracing diversity and inclusion help attract workers, it can make them more successful, too. A 2015 study by global business consultant McKinsey & Co. found that companies with higher gender and race diversity tended to be more profitable.

The data did not indicate why that was so, but the study’s authors theorized that diversity helped the companies better understand their potential customers, offered them a wider range of ideas, enhanced the companies’ public image and helped them win the talent war.

Prystai said it’s no surprise to him that diverse companies are more successful. He recently observed his mother trying to operate a phone app that required her to swipe upward on the screen, something she found wasn’t easy because of her long fingernails. It was obvious to Prystai the apps’ developers didn’t include any women, who could have pointed out the shortcoming.

Diversity at work

Kirk Kellner, an Omahan who heads Wells Fargo’s Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri region, said he regularly sees the benefits that come from a diverse staff. Sometimes it’s in obvious ways, such as when a Latino worker is able to speak in Spanish to a customer. But other times it’s in the form of wider perspectives and ideas that challenge norms.

The bank’s downtown Omaha branch serves a particularly diverse client base, and it has a melting pot staff to match. The 11 employees include natives of Sudan, Mexico, Dubai, Morocco and the Philippines, and the branch manager is a Latino native of South Omaha. Employees’ name tags let customers know if they speak another language besides English.

On one recent day at the bank, personal banker James Lodu sat at his computer giving an online banking tutorial to one customer, an older white man who’s one of Lodu’s regulars. But as a former Sudanese refugee, the University of South Dakota graduate has also helped the bank attract a sizable base of customers from within Omaha’s Sudanese and Somali communities.

Kellner said Wells Fargo wants a workforce that mirrors the community it serves, and he said it’s found a simple way to achieve that: If you cast a wide net for job candidates and show them they will feel comfortable and welcome within your organization, you will attract a diverse pool. And if you hire the best of those candidates, diversity will follow.

To aid in employee retention, the bank also sponsors resource groups that allow diverse collections of employees to network, including groups for blacks, Latinos, women, LGBT and military veterans.

“We see differences as an asset,” Kellner said.

Now state business leaders are seeking to get more businesses to see things that way.

The push began in 2017, when the Omaha chamber launched planning for its 20-year economic development goals. In engaging with the millennial generation that will make up the vast majority of that future workforce, diversity and inclusion became a frequent topic.

The chamber’s resulting economic plan called for embracing Omaha’s increasing diversity as “a community treasure.” The chamber also established a new program that seeks to educate Omaha employers on the importance of diversity, setting a goal of helping 100 local firms adopt “best-in-the-nation” inclusive hiring and promotion practices.

Under the chamber’s CODE initiative, short for Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity, companies are encouraged to implement a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy and to measure their success. The chamber offers resources to assist them, including opportunities for their diverse employees to network with citywide resource groups. In CODE’s first year, some 40 local companies have signed the pledge.

“This isn’t just going to happen,” Brown said. “We have to be intentional about it.”

Tom Chapman, an Omaha-based tech consultant who has advised Aksarben’s tech workforce initiative, recently said that if Nebraska is realistically going to attract enough skilled workers, it will need to welcome more international migration. That often means opening the door to more people who are nonwhite or don’t speak English.

“We aren’t very friendly to those people right now, and we need to do better,” Chapman said last fall during a presentation before tech business leaders, drawing applause.

Then came this summer’s Blueprint Nebraska report. Despite its sweeping sentiment for making Nebraska the region’s most welcoming state, the report was short on detailed plans for increasing diversity and inclusion.

Still, Jim Smith, a former state senator who serves as Blueprint’s executive director, considers it both remarkable and notable that out of the report’s 15 signature recommendations from a panel of business leaders from across the state, one would call for broadly embracing diversity and inclusion — something no one would have predicted a decade ago. As the organization in coming years seeks to implement its vision, it will hammer out more concrete proposals, he said.

Wells Fargo’s Kellner agreed there are many signs that attitudes in the state are changing. Initiatives like Blueprint and the ongoing philanthropic efforts to support school success for children in poverty make him optimistic about the future.

“If we can give an equal opportunity to everyone in our community, we will see a diverse workforce,” he said. “I do feel the community is understanding the power of diversity and inclusion.”