Focus on Youth, Opportunities, Bringing Nebraska Together

Richard Baier
Richard Baier

Whether it's Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn or other social networking sites, the Nebraska Department of Economic Development is using them to stay in contact with the state's young people.

The department is doing everything it can to keep young people in Nebraska, but if they do leave, DED is trying to lure them back - one person at a time. Richard Baier, Director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development, said the state has to create an environment where young people and young families want to live. That's one of the department's primary long-term challenges. A state full of young people means they will have children here, creating the growth - and the future - the state needs.

"We are encouraging our communities to think like young families - what do young families want in a community? What does the community look like? Is it open to outsiders? How are the schools?" Baier said.

"We've done some research on people who have left the state and have come back. Most of them are looking for a good job, but they're looking for other things - they're looking for safety, security, family and for a close social network," Baier said. Many communities have grown so large that people have lost those things - and Nebraska can provide them.

But the timing is critical, Baier said; the best time to lure young people back to Nebraska is when they are in their mid-20s, newly married with a child and a puppy ("they seem to come together"). If they wait to launch recruiting efforts until after families have two or three children who are in school, people are less eager to relocate.

"We need to be very aggressive about marketing to that age group," he said. "They're looking to get back to their roots. They don't want to spend two or three hours of their day sitting in a traffic jam," he said. "It cuts into the most important thing, and that's family time."

Baier is seeing progress.

"We're going to see some really nice professional clubs forming across the state," Baier said. They started in Lincoln and Omaha as social networking clubs for young people and that model is spreading across the state, allowing young professionals to move back to a rural community and still feel that they have a social network.

Expanded Opportunities
The Department of Economic Development is working to create a variety of opportunities in the state to accommodate the employment interests of a large number of people. "Our job is to give them the tools to be successful," Baier said. There are some communities who have chosen not to pursue outside resources or to invest in their housing stock, and those communities will face challenges down the road, he added.

"We are a leading state for things besides Cornhusker football and Omaha Steaks," Baier said. We want people to know us for other things, like the information technology sector." Yahoo! announced in 2008 that it will locate a customer care center and a data center in the Omaha area in 2009. That put Nebraska on the national agenda for the information technology industry, he said. Many national companies are driven by former Nebraskans. For example, PayPal in Omaha is owned by a gentleman from Hershey, Baier said.

"We've done some research on people who have left the state and have come back. Most of them are looking for a good job, but they're looking for other things - they're looking for safety, security, family and for a close social network.

Communities are determining their strengths and marketing themselves based on those strengths; Hershey is one example. That community identified that it has an exceptional school system; it is 12 minutes from North Platte and eight minutes from the Union Pacific rail yard. Hershey has chosen to grow its housing, Baier said, and people who work in North Platte can choose to live a more rural life in Hershey.

Information technology allows a designer for Boeing to work out of her home in rural Nebraska, partnering with another designer in India. She works on designs during the day, then sends them electronically to the designer in India who, because of the global time difference, works on the designs during India's day. As the sun rises in Nebraska, the designs are sent back to rural Nebraska.

Nebraska's Global Economy
The Nebraska Department of Economic Development hosted a reverse trade mission in September of 2008; 130 international business leaders representing five continents came to Nebraska for a week to learn what Nebraska has to offer in science, industry and agriculture. In the evenings, Baier said it was interesting to watch the social environment as everyone realized priorities are the same in all cultures - safety, security and family.

That kind of activity leads to cultural appreciation, which leads to business opportunities down the road, Baier said.

"We are developing a global culture because there is so much travel back and forth," he said. Maybe a student from China goes to the movies here and develops an appreciation for popcorn, then goes home and imports it from Nebraska. Maybe it's finding a sushi bar in Lincoln, Nebraska, he said.

Helping Communities
Baier said there are program representatives that go into communities to help them identify priorities and focus on long-range planning. Some community development groups are bringing in high school students into their board of directors and learning what young people are looking for in a community.

Growing Nebraska and its communities means strong and consistent leadership, and it's a marathon, not a 100-meter sprint. Part of the leadership training model is to bring in young people to identify community assets and leaders, then allow leaders time to attend leadership training.

If a community hires really good, young staff and compensates them well, those leaders can organize volunteers and activities and get everyone going in the right direction, Baier said. Most communities have tons of energy on the volunteer side, but a paid staff person can "cut the path for them," he said.

In greater Nebraska, part of the department's challenge is to have good, strong communities to sell. "It's a bit of a competition," he said. Nebraska competes with other attractive states, but also countries - like India.

"We have to know the labor force, buildings and building sites, websites. You go to a community website in most places in Nebraska and you'll know real quickly who understands," he said. Many communities have been proactive in staying in contact with alumni from local high schools; postcards, special websites and other methods facilitate communication.

"They're very aggressive about saying 'come back home. Here are employment opportunities, here's a business you can buy, or here's how we can support you if you want to become an entrepreneur,'" he said.

Nebraska's unique lifestyle and natural resources are unusual enough that they attract visitors not only from other states, but other countries, as well. Sparsely-populated agricultural counties are identifying and building on their strengths, Baier said.

People pay a fee to participate in cattle brandings in the Sandhills. Visitors to Valentine and Mullen are getting in big cattle tanks with friends and floating down the Niobrara or Dismal river ("tanking" businesses were booked for the summer by January, drawing people from the entire Midwest)...or they're getting in canoes on the Calamus river, Baier said. The area around Burwell is capturing the area around the lake, where people now want to live full time. Mullen built the world-class Sandhills Golf Course, capitalizing on its natural terrain. "What a unique asset - something that was written about as Buffalo Commons not that many years ago now has national recognition and people flying in," Baier said.

The state's hunting and fishing industry is able to sell a little different way of life, "some time to yourself," he said.

"Selling" Nebraska is Everyone's Responsibility
"I hate to say it, but I think we need to have a little more Texan in us and be more proud of the things we do have," he said. "If you get on an elevator in Dallas and ask someone where they're from, they get real excited, telling you they're from Texas. We need to have that mentality here - we really do have some great things," he added.

Bringing young people and young families back is up to all of us, Baier said. "Tell people...invite them to come back home."