- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

Omaha World-Herald. July 24, 2015

Job training plan offers promise

People who’ve lost their jobs often have no place else to turn than unemployment benefits. It is rational to worry first about paying the bills, not what skills are needed to secure more stable work.

But Nebraskans soon should no longer have to choose one or the other. Beginning in October, those who want unemployment benefits will be required to plan and train for their working future.

The state’s new “re-employment” requirement calls for specific, individualized plans to connect each job applicant’s knowledge and skills with known job openings, while helping those who lack needed skills to obtain them. Training will be tailored to the needs of Nebraska’s employers and the more than 50,000 open jobs the Nebraska Department of Labor knows are available.

There’s sound logic in such a change.

The number of applicants for unemployment aid and total dollars doled out are still trending downward from the recent peak of 2009’s economic downturn. Payments average about $300 a month.

The number of people exhausting the full length of their unemployment benefits also is dropping, down to 650 in May from 917 in May 2014 and 1,253 in 2013.

But the average length of stay on unemployment remains almost three months.

Also, Nebraska employers list 18,000 more job openings than the state has unemployment benefit applicants who have posted résumés. That’s one impact when a state’s unemployment rate is as low as Nebraska’s. At 2.6 percent, it’s the lowest state rate in the nation.

As always, how the state executes this change will matter as much as the idea.

Funding and staffing must be realistic. Long delays and poor counseling would be self-defeating. The program will need flexibility for seasonal and shift workers who may be out of work only a short time.

For now, the feds are on board, letting Nebraska use federal and state funds. That’s promising. So, too, is the support among Nebraska employers. There’s an encouraging consensus around helping people who want a job.

This fall, plans call for all successful unemployment benefit applicants to attend a group orientation and a one-on-one career counseling session as soon as they receive benefits. Currently, only those who look like they’re having trouble finding a job after four or five weeks of benefits get pulled into an orientation, let alone a one-on-one session.

Starting in October, benefit recipients will have their skill sets audited and will be required to post résumés into a Labor Department database, offering employers a screened pool of prospects from which to hire.

The goal is to provide any workers who want to improve themselves and their skills access to needed training and education and any available state or federal help to pursue that course.

One of the program’s strengths is that it streamlines three separate state and federal programs into a one-stop shop for people seeking work and for employers seeking qualified help.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and his team at the Department of Labor deserve credit for pursuing this good idea. It’s one that the agency already is sharing with labor departments in other states. If implemented well, it could be a model for states that share Nebraska’s tight labor market.

The approach could be a win-win-win. It looks good for job seekers, good for the state’s employers and good for Nebraska’s economy.


Lincoln Journal Star. July 22, 2015

Self-driving trucks soon to cruise

Ain’t nothin’ gonna get in our way

We gonna roll this truckin’ convoy

‘Cross the USA

- C.W. McCall, 1975

The proposal to use U.S. 83 as a test corridor for driverless tractor-trailer trucks might have seemed like something that should be filed in the same category as the flying cars futurists have been promising since the 1950s.

Don’t be too sure.

The technology is already being used. It might not be long before a motorist might spot a self-driving truck through the windshield or in the rearview mirror on the stretch of the highway that runs north-south through central Nebraska.

Nevada already has a regulatory framework in place to allow driverless trucks, also called autonomous trucks. Freightliner has logged more than 10,000 miles on an autonomous truck made by Daimler. Under the rules, the truck can be operated in autonomous “Highway Pilot” mode on Nevada freeways and Interstate highways. The driver must remain in the driver’s seat and be in position to take control of the truck.

In fact, to hear enthusiasts with the Central North American Trade Association talk about the proposal, it almost sounds like they think the biggest hurdles are convincing elected officials in other states to make the driverless trucks legal.

“I think 15 to 20 years from now we’re going to tell our kids we used to drive these things, and they are going to laugh at us,” Marlo Anderson, a director of the association, told the Journal Star’s Nicholas Bergin.

In “Highway Pilot” mode, the truck “was able to effortlessly handle any scenario that it encountered on our short drive,” trucknews.com reported.

Advocates claim that autonomous trucks could save fuel by forming “platoons,” or tightly packed convoys, with their speed and braking synchronized with the lead truck.

For some, that possibility might seem reminiscent of the Top 40 hit “Convoy” penned by Omaha ad writer Bill Fries, later made into a movie.

Others might have darker imaginations, perhaps recalling the movie “Christine” about a car with an evil mind of its own, or wondering about the possibility that the “Highway Pilot” software could be hacked by a terrorist organization or a bored teenager.

The most likely near-term possibility is one similar to that in Nevada, in which autonomous technology takes over on long stretches of highway driving, reducing driver fatigue, improving efficiency and helping to reduce driver error that leads to crashes.

Trucknews.com reported that when its writer rode on the autonomous truck, the driver was able to pick up a tablet and “perform non-driving tasks.” In other words, if you see a self-driving truck on U.S. 83 a few years from now, there probably will be person aboard, but instead of gripping the steering wheel, they may be on a laptop planning their next load, checking email or, who knows, watching a movie.


The Grand Island Independent. July 19, 2015

Poll shows lots of optimism in rural Nebraska

It seems like there is always something to complain about. It’s too hot; it’s too cold. It’s too wet; it’s too dry. There’s too much work to do; there’s not enough time.

People in rural Nebraska, though, seem to be seeing the cup as half full.

The 2015 Nebraska Rural Poll was released last week and rural Nebraskans are as optimistic about their lives as at any time during the 20 years the poll has been taken.

In the survey, 53 percent of respondents said they were better off than five years ago. This tied for the highest mark ever in the poll with results from 2008.

In addition, 48 percent believe they will be better off in 10 years. This is up 4 percentage points from last year and the highest it has ever been in the poll.

So what’s driving this good feeling in rural Nebraska?

“Things have been going well in Nebraska of late. A long drought has essentially ended and unemployment is really quite low,” said Randy Cantrell, rural sociologist with the Nebraska Rural Futures Institute.

Cantrell is right on the mark. What drives the mood in rural areas, where there is crop and ranch land, is the weather. For many years, a lingering drought punished pastures. Some ranchers had to liquidate their herds. Irrigated cropland flourished, but not dryland.

The last few years, though, have seen more rain, especially in the spring that greened up pastures.

Cattle prices have stayed high, boosting the mood of ranchers. For corn and soybean producers, though, prices have taken a significant dip the last couple of years. For that reason, the level of optimism in the poll is surprising.

Perhaps that optimism comes from Cantrell’s second point. Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.5 percent. There seems to be jobs available for everyone who wants one. Of course, not all of the jobs are going to pay desired wages but at least there are available jobs.

There’s also a lot to like about living in the rural parts of the state, which most consider any area outside of Omaha and its surrounding suburbs and Lincoln.

The pace of life is slower. There’s less crime and less traffic in rural areas. There’s clean air, plenty of outdoor activities and just less stress.

Rural Nebraska is a great place to live. The people are friendly and care about their neighbors. Many small towns are tight-knit, vibrant communities.

And now, it seems, they are also full of optimism.


Scottsbluff Star-Herald. July 21, 2015

Life quality

If you were in the audience at Five Rocks Amphitheater on Sunday night, you were witness to an inspiring event. The beautiful, underused venue was host to The Good Living Tour, a project spearheaded by music journalism organization Hear Nebraska to bring concerts to small towns across the state.

Families relaxed on blankets in the grass. The sun set behind the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Kids slid down the lawn berm, and the crowd listened to folk, hip-hop and rock music from bands who reside in eastern Nebraska.

Part of organizer Andrew Norman’s motivation in putting these shows together was to bring music to small-town Nebraska that he didn’t have access to when growing up in Imperial. Another part was to encourage young people to either stay in the small communities where they were raised or come back to be part of their hometown communities.

Before the headliner blét, made up of one-time Panhandle musicians, took the stage, Norman presented a video with interviews from local young professionals. They spoke on what they enjoyed about living here, including a slower pace of life, lack of traffic and proximity to Colorado and South Dakota. Their testimonies were generally positive takes on life on the Great Plains.

We’d like to add to the list of benefits to life in western Nebraska, particularly for young, motivated professionals.

One major draw to reverse the oft-cited brain drain that needs to be better promoted are the ample opportunities for civic engagement and leadership that aren’t often readily available in bigger, more competitive urban environments.

In small towns, young professionals are allowed into higher ranking leadership positions, positions they’d have to wait much longer to attain elsewhere. In rural Nebraska it’s possible to become a member of the school board or city council before turning 30. Throughout our community, we have school administrators, city officials and other business and industry leaders under 40. Our communities may be aging, but the young people who stay or come back often quickly move up and can have an impact.

Another facet of good living for young professionals from our small towns is family - both raising our own and staying connected to the one we’re members of. Those that choose to have children benefit from having parents and siblings who can share in their child-rearing duties. Kids who grow up thousands of miles from their parents’ home are less likely to know their grandparents.

Western Nebraska is perfect for parents. Our schools are safe and strive to provide a quality education. The cost of living is low.

There are a myriad of reasons why Nebraska is a great place to live, but don’t just take it from us. The data analysis website RoadSnacks just put together a ranking of the worst states to live in. It analyzed data from the FBI, the government census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among others.

The ranking criteria: population density, highest unemployment rates, adjusted median income, high housing vacancy rate, education (low expenditures per student and high student-teacher ratio), long commute times, high crime and the worst weather.

Mississippi came in first in the race to the bottom. The report cited bad weather, high unemployment and low income as major strikes against the state.

The worst states were in the South, and the best, you probably guessed it, were in the Midwest. This was one ranking that Nebraska proudly finished dead last in. Our neighbors Iowa and Wyoming finished 49th and 48th, respectively.

This isn’t a secret we want to keep. Finding a way to convince our young professionals to stay in or return to the state is one of our biggest challenges as Nebraskans. And the more efforts we make, like the one we saw on Sunday night, the better off we’re going to be.

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