Nebraska's Low Jobless Rate Defies National Data

Nebraska's 4.8 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country in part because its key industries have done well during the recession. But though it's doing better than most states, Nebraska is also trying to emerge from the economic downturn.

Nebraska's 4.8 percent unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country in part because its key industries have done well during the recession. But though it's doing better than most states, Nebraska is also trying to emerge from the country's worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

On a muggy day in the eastern Nebraska city of Columbus, about 50 employees are welding, grinding and painting trailers -- mainly used to haul fertilizer -- inside the main shop of Duo Lift. Large industrial fans vigorously stir the air. "Witchy Woman" plays on a classic rock radio station.

Hard To Find Workers

The business has been in Ben Hellbusch's family since his grandfather started the company in the back of his milk barn in the early 1940s. Hellbusch is in his 20s, has red hair and has a problem that isn't so common these days.

"Typically, it's difficult to find good help around here," he says. "Everybody's got a job."

Hellbusch is looking for good painters. He says it's hard to find skilled workers around here because there's a lot of agricultural manufacturing in the city. He says because the company is careful not to overhire in booming times, it avoids layoffs when things slow down.

"It seems like every 10 years there's a high and a low in the ag industry, where you're either walking in tall cotton or you're wondering if you're going to get payroll this week," he says. "And so the way we do it is to try to stay on an even keel."

In addition to the manufacturing company, Hellbusch is a co-owner of a farm-equipment sales company, and he farms 180 acres with his brother.

Holding multiple jobs is common in rural Nebraska.

Eric Thompson, an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says along with a high workforce quality, Nebraska has been able to keep unemployment low because several key industries in the state have done well, and the housing bubble hasn't been as severe.

"The wealth of Nebraska families has held up much better in this recession than it has for families in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida -- places where people have seen the value of their biggest asset, their home, plummet. Not so in Nebraska," Thompson says. "Prices have stayed steady or perhaps fallen just a few percentage points."

Statistics May Not Tell Whole Story

Barbara Bittner and her husband still own a home in New Mexico. Originally from Nebraska, she left Albuquerque in April, just months after her husband lost his job at a civil engineering firm. They moved back to Nebraska for a job she got as a technical writer at a medical university in Omaha.

"This was the first interview that I had because we were looking at various areas -- we had lived in Denver, we had lived in Kansas City, and I'm from here, so we were looking in all three areas," she says. "He was looking much harder than I was. Really, from the time I applied to the time I got the job, it was probably three weeks."

But Randy Cantrell, who studies rural economics for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says the unemployment statistics can be misleading for a largely rural state. He says many rural workers don't show up in those statistics because they hold multiple jobs. Also, more rural workers are becoming self-employed.

"Let's say I do auto and tractor and truck repairs on the farm: I've got tools in my truck, I've got a welder, I drive around and I do these things for folks," Cantrell says. "I may have seen my income cut significantly during this recession, but to the extent that I still do that at all, I'm still working, I'm still making money, and even if I lost it all I couldn't be unemployed because I was working for myself."

While Nebraska's unemployment rate rose in the first half of 2010, the continuing strength of its agriculture economy seems to have provided an employment cushion during these tough economic times. Copyright 2010 Nebraska Public Radio Network. To see more, visit http://www.nprn.org.

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