Rural America at Risk: Senator John N. Harms of Scottsbluff

Dr. John Harms
Dr. John Harms

Rural America is at risk, and rural Nebraska is no exception.

Dr. John Harms has watched the crisis develop, and believes he knows how to help Nebraska emerge from that crisis through careful, long-range planning and implementation of changes. Rather than just talking about it, he ran for a seat in Nebraska's Unicameral. And as State Senator John Harms, he has knowledge, passion and plans.

"Rural America is at risk. We're going to be 10 million workers short (in the United States) in the future, " said Harms, retired President of Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, now in his first term representing the 48th District. That district includes all of Scotts Bluff County, with its major communities of Scottsbluff, Gering and Mitchell.

Long-range planning will begin in the Unicameral in 2009, with Harms as a driving force. Right now, he said, "we have no idea how we can make anything happen, and it's even worse in the communities." The state has never put together a long-range, comprehensive plan, he said, and it needs one. That plan must include benchmarks, goals and evaluations, Harms said, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln should be providing the raw research to the Unicameral about what to do with rural America, and how to help them to survive.

"A whole new skill set is needed, and we need to start these discussions now," he said. Sometimes residents of greater Nebraska feel like they've been forgotten by Lincoln and Omaha, and that their needs and requests aren't important.

Critical Changes, Education
"In rural America, we're going to have to change what we do," he said. "I'm putting together a plan to gear up rural America in planning for the future. What are your assets? Your culture? Agriculture? Global economy?" he said.

Harms holds a Ph.D. in educational administration from Chadron State College and believes passionately in education and in partnering with research universities. He wants to find new ways to make rural Nebraska thrive. There are plenty of issues that affect Scotts Bluff county and the Scottsbluff community, including its century-long history with immigration, the education of its residents, recruiting and retaining a work force and moving the area forward despite a fiscally-conservative constituency.

"In the education arena, we aren't failing; we're just falling behind because we're asked to produce another skill set.

"In the education arena, we aren't failing; we're just falling behind because we're asked to produce another skill set," he said. "We need to make the conversion in the near future." Making a conversion of that magnitude will take planning - and money. Harms wants to be sure kids stay in school so the area doesn't have a large, unskilled work force that isn't trained for the jobs that will require increasingly-higher skills.

Worker Shortage, Challenges in Blending
The Panhandle of Nebraska attracted migrant farm workers to work the potato and sugar beet fields as early as the late 1800s, and many were from Mexico. Many settled in the Panhandle, and the area today is a diverse mix of longtime Nebraska citizens, including Caucasians, Hispanics and Native Americans, as well as some new immigrants. There isn't as much potato production as in years past, but the sugar beet industry is thriving, though it is mechanized. The mechanization requires fewer workers, but with more skills than in the early days.

Part of the current worker shortage in America has occurred because the U.S. is aging and population growth hasn't kept pace with the need for workers; now the immigrants fill the unskilled jobs, Harms said. Additionally, more of the younger Americans are attending college, and that has stripped the nation of its lower-skilled work force and created the need to hire workers from other countries, especially in areas with factories and other facilities that employ large numbers of unskilled workers.

But with the influx of workers from other countries come difficulties in blending ethnicities, he said. Discrimination is a top issue that he hears. "Discussion around the family table - that's the heart of it. Lots of opinions have been passed down within families," he said, and that has been a powerful influence in the western part of Nebraska. Additionally, he said, "what they see on television, whatever they look at in headlines IS how people learn about immigration."

Exposing people to different cultures and giving them a global education are keys to understanding immigration and immigrants, Harms said, as well as keys to moving rural Nebraska forward. If you've been out in the world and have had experience with people from different cultures, or if you've had classmates from other countries, you don't embrace passed-down opinions or believe what you hear, he said.

Harms has been involved with the immigrant population for many years; he knows the issues, knows the cultures, knows how to reach people.

As President of WNCC, Harms instituted an international program to bring students to Scottsbluff from other countries. Bit by bit, he felt the program made inroads into helping the people of greater Nebraska to understand other cultures. Learning to communicate about issues and being determined to succeed are vital. "You just have to keep hammering away at it," he said.

Training, Recruiting, Retaining Workers
Harms said the future of rural Nebraska depends largely on educating and retaining a workforce that can help communities move forward.

"New technology needs more skilled workers," he said, and that realization - and a lot of listening - began the vision for the John N. Harms Advanced Technology Center of Nebraska (HATC), a component of Western Nebraska Community College. The 44,000-square-foot Center opened its doors in 2002, and provides education and training programs for people from all walks of life, including career academies for high school students; corporate academies for businesses; a General Educational Development (GED) program designed to help people earn a high school equivalency diploma; and classes in computers, languages, citizenship and many others. Courses are offered to address economic and community needs, according to the Center's mission statement.

In fact, the WNCC and the HATC provide a wide range of training opportunities for employees of Cabela's; its headquarters is in Sidney, just 78 miles southeast of Scottsbluff.

Recruiting and training workers to fill the specific needs of the region is important to the economy of the area and to the economy of Nebraska. It took six years to raise the $10 million in private dollars to build the Center that bears Harms' name. But through partnering with companies, the WNCC and the HATC have been able to serve this region of the state.

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