COLUMBUS — Eric Thompson shared a common platitude Thursday during a presentation on the Columbus economy.
“I think businesspeople are optimistic by nature. That's why they're out there taking the risk," said Thompson, director of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bureau of Business Research.
While that may be true, the presentation at the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce showed some disconnect between those businesspeople and their customers.
David Rosenbaum, assistant director at the Bureau of Business Research, said consumer confidence has taken a dip in the Columbus area in the last few months, following below the state level. But a separate survey showed most Columbus business owners are optimistic that sales and employment will remain stable or increase.
Aside from the theory that businesspeople are naturally optimistic, Thompson also posited that perhaps after 15 years of low consumer confidence and three years of low commodity prices, businesspeople have adapted.
“It’s sort of baked into their expectations now,” said Thompson. “Businesses got very negative when commodity prices dropped. It’s not that it doesn't bother them, it’s that they've been dealing with it for two or three years and they've kind of learned to deal with it. So things being bad in agriculture doesn’t make them pessimistic about the future.”
Another surprise was that the second-highest concern among consumers is the cost of living — behind only the cost of health care. In Columbus, concern over cost of living was higher than the state as a whole.
But compared to the national average, Nebraska’s cost of living is moderate, particularly in micropolitan areas like Columbus. Nebraska’s housing market is more affordable than the nationwide market. According to the National Association of Realtors, in 2015 a Nebraskan with a median income would only spend 12 percent of their income on a median-priced house.
Thompson and Rosenbaum had different theories for why this may be the case.
“It may be that (cost of living) was higher than the other micropolitan towns like Norfolk and Hastings,” said Thompson. “Maybe people in their minds say 'Alright, given that I'm in a mid-size city instead of a big city, I feel like the costs are more than I expect.'"
Rosenbaum said it may also be a sign of depressed wages.
“More people are saying we're worried about that gap between what we earn and what things cost,” said Rosenbaum. “If costs are relatively low here it’s kind of indicating wages are not maybe enough to keep up with those costs, at least in these people’s minds."
The research bureau also worked with the state to find the gaps between what workers are looking for in potential jobs and what employers are looking for in employees.
From the job seeker’s perspective, they’re not finding positions that provide the pay, benefits and working hours they want. They’re also not finding jobs that match the skills they have.
From the employer's perspective, the difficulty is finding employees with the desired training and education or the right work or personal history. A lot of employers in the room nodded in recognition.
But Rosenbaum said there’s another way to see the issue.
“One of our thoughts on that is maybe it’s a different model of management — in other words, not saying, 'I wish we could find more people that look like this, rather than like this.’ It’s, ‘How can we manage people that look like this to get them to become more like that,'" said Rosenbaum. “So it might be a mindset thing.”
Instead of the current system, where people receive training before finding an employer, Thompson said the government and educational system need to help employers get the needed training for their employees.
“So the employers are screening that this is someone that’s worth all the money we put into training,” said Thompson. “Maybe if we went to a system like that it would work better.”
Around 100 businesses responded to a Bureau of Business Research poll that found consumer demand and labor availability were tied for the most-important issues facing Columbus-area businesses. Typically, Rosenbaum said, labor availability is second or third on the list in these polls.
“To have it tied for the top emphasizes what an important issue it is here,” he said.