Education, Agriculture, Positivity Forecast Nebraska's Future
"I'm learning new things every day. And I think if you don't do that, you get behind...and pretty soon you're against any kind of change. And change is inevitable," said Roger T. Larson, Lincoln community leader, retired KFOR broadcast sales pioneer and most recently, editorial broadcaster on Lincoln's KLIN Radio.
Larson said change is speeding up and Nebraskans need to be sure they are educated about current events, have a positive attitude about change, and help communities move forward.
Larson has an informed, positive view of the issues and confidence in the ability of Nebraskans to solve problems. A lifelong Nebraskan, Larson graduated from the University of Nebraska and believes the university is the most important economic driver in Nebraska.
Education as an Economic Driver
"I think we have to rely more upon the human capital than many other states have to, and therefore, education is terribly important to Nebraska," he said. He is particularly pleased that research is attracting more attention. "I think if you went back and listened to all of the advantages to Nebraska and to the world that have come out of the University of Nebraska, I think you'd be amazed," he said.
Many more advantages will result, and Larson said they will show that Nebraska's greatest asset is its educated people.
A UNL research park called Innovation Campus will be built on the site of the Nebraska State Fair beginning in 2010 after the fair moves to Grand Island. The Nebraska Unicameral voted in the spring of 2008 to move the fair to make room for the research park.
Innovation Campus and the research campuses in Omaha provide the opportunity for companies to employ those educated people that produce the research, Larson said. And when university students get involved with those firms, they are more likely to stay in Nebraska rather than look elsewhere for a good job.
An inadequate number of educated workers is one of the biggest challenges the state faces, and one that will involve slowing out-migration, or "brain drain" of educated young professionals and continued recruitment efforts. Growth of entities such as Innovation Campus are likely to attract and retain the work force the state needs.
One of the educational opportunities in the state that is often overlooked, Larson said, is the community college system. It's a great entry place for a lot of high school graduates to "get a toe in the water of higher education and begin to sort out what they want to do with the rest of their lives."
A proponent of higher education in any form, Larson feels that Nebraska should consider extending public education through grade 14 instead of grade 12. "Education is becoming more important all the time," he said, and this would be one way of increasing the education level of Nebraskans.
Agriculture as an Economic Driver
Agriculture has always been a great economic driver in the state, and much of Nebraska is still tied in some way to the agricultural economy - from Omaha to Chadron, Valentine to Red Cloud. Nebraska is one of the top two states in the country in cattle production, and is the fourth largest agricultural economy in the nation.
"Agriculture has survived the ups and downs of the economy, the standard of life in the country and in the world, as well as people's taste and need for food - so we really have to salute the agricultural industry for what they're doing," Larson said.
But the state's population is small compared with the states that compete with Nebraska for those high ag rankings, and it's often difficult to find workers - especially in rural Nebraska.
Cooperation, Investment are Essential
Although Nebraska is attracting many people to jobs in the state, many of those are going to jobs in Lincoln and Omaha. Small towns struggle to retain a work force, and the smallest towns are in danger of disappearing.
Larson said towns that prosper tend to have a school; a bank that is not afraid to make loans to local people; a co-op; a general store or supermarket; and a good restaurant. A place for townspeople to gather is important, and when they do gather, they should have strong leadership and unity of purpose in making that community viable, he said. "They can't be individuals going their own way; they have to work together," he explained. And working together to make their communities thrive involves an investment - of time, dollars, cooperation and commitment.
Communities that welcome industry may also welcome immigrant workers to fill the needs of the work force.
While Larson would prefer that the immigration system be fixed so people can come to this country legally, he believes immigration is good. "And I think we should do everything we can to educate those people," Larson said. "It will help our state."
Larson recognizes that many Nebraskans don't understand the facts about immigration, and that many may be influenced by misinformation. "We must keep up the educational process to help (Nebraskans) understand that immigrants are an asset. And I want (immigrants) to love our country like we do," he said.
It's easy to come up with simple answers to complex issues like immigration, but the issues are not simple, nor are the answers - and people who come up with easy answers have lost touch with reality. They aren't stupid people, but they are ignorant of the facts, Larson said. "I think we all have an obligation to stay current with current events and with history, as well, so we have some background to make some decisions on these kinds of problems," he said.
Planning for Nebraska's Future
Lincoln and Omaha will have major roles, but the two cities have had a unique, almost jealous, relationship for nearly 35 years, he said, and "unfortunately, in a situation like that you get egos involved." Larson admires the economic development in Omaha, and believes the two cities will slowly become one metropolitan area in the future. There is great economic development in the corridor between Lincoln and Omaha, and that growth will benefit both cities. "I think that realization is beginning to take hold," he said.
There will be centers of influence in the future, and if Larson had to guess, he'd predict the main center of influence - as well as the intellectual capital - will be Lincoln. The University of Nebraska's flagship campus and the center of government are both in Lincoln, he said, while Omaha focuses more on the old tradition of production and industrial growth, he said, though they certainly also are invested in education.
"An editorial writer, which I am, is supposed to be critical, most times. But I just can't force myself to be too critical. First off, we live in a city where we don't have too much to be critical about. And the same way with the state. We have it pretty doggone nice," he said. "I'd rather push forward than kick backward."
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