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Omaha Magazine

Getting the Job Done: Innovative Programs Connect Employers and Job-seekers

Sep 29, 2022 03:28PM ● By Kara Schweiss
Goodwill’s Tobi Mathouser

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

 Summer 2022 data from the Nebraska Department of Labor shows Nebraska’s unemployment rate to be at a record low of 1.9%, the second lowest in the nation behind Minnesota and significantly lower than the national average of 3.6%. There’s a flip side to this, however: a labor shortage. 

According to a report published by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for disrupting the American labor force even after businesses across the country began resuming normal operations. In 2021, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs or never returned to jobs restored after suspension—for reasons ranging from the desire for permanent flexibility to increased compensation—in what has become known as “The Great Resignation.” 

Many businesses continue to struggle to fill vacant positions, said Stan Odenthal, director of business relations for Heartland Workforce Solutions, Inc. And even in times when many employers are hiring, there are workers out there still seeking better opportunities. 

“It just doesn’t seem like there are enough people for all of the jobs available, but there are a number of different factors,” Odenthal said. “Looking at numbers from the NEworks system, the state system, you can see that there were about 13,000 more advertised jobs in May 2022
versus May 2021.”

The public knows Heartland Workforce Solutions, an American Job Center Network partner, for its role in serving unemployed or underemployed individuals looking for work, Odenthal said. The organization may be less recognized for its role serving employers seeking to fill positions. Heartland Workforce Solutions provides programs and services, some in partnership with other community organizations and nonprofits, to help both sides find a good fit. 

“We are the convener of workforce development programs for the Omaha metropolitan area. What that means is that we’re the local workforce area that has been designated to receive federal funds for and to serve Douglas, Sarpy, and Washington counties,” Odenthal said. “We bring together all the workforce development partners and we work as that central pivot point to help lead collaboration and make things as seamless as possible for both job seekers and businesses that access those services.”

For example, in 2021 and 2022, Heartland Workforce Solutions conducted “industry listening sessions” to facilitate focused discussion about current job demands and future projections in various sectors. 

“We actively are paying close attention to job openings and in which sectors and industries they’re increasing, and trying to match our training funds to those,” Odenthal said. “We’re working to build bridges to health care, to construction, to education, to different types of jobs that continue to increase in number […] we’re trying to fill those gaps and make our programs better and better. We’re trying to understand where we need to be in five years to meet the demand of businesses in the Omaha area and to understand how things are changing, too.”

He added, “One of the things I recommend most is for businesses to really take a look at some of the labor market information and how competing businesses are increasing the available benefits out there, as well as wages and some of the additional employee perks that are making them a little more of a preferred employer to some of those job seekers.”

On the third Thursday afternoon of every month, Heartland Workforce Solutions hosts workshops in collaboration with community partners featuring experts who cover topics of interest to local businesses and experts. Business representatives can sign up for the Better Business Workshop series online. 

“Topics including things like employment discrimination, labor law rules, and how to become a federal contractor...really good information for employers,” Odenthal said. 

On the job-seeker side, Heartland Workforce Solutions provides resources through multiple channels, including its facility at 5752 Ames Avenue, where more than 15 different workforce development partners are represented. People can receive a variety of services from resume assistance to computer access for job searches. Every Monday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the center spotlights local employers, giving job seekers the opportunity to meet representatives in person and ask questions about open positions and potential career paths. The organization also hosts regular job fairs with businesses who are ready to hire. 

“There are a lot of great tools and technology that can be accessed at home, but our center also provides those tools and resources for anyone who may not have a computer or who just needs a bit of additional assistance,” Odenthal said. “We encourage people to come down and see things there, and get some tips on how to navigate all those systems as well.” 

Heartland Workforce Solutions also helps those job-seekers looking for more stable or lucrative careers, or for jobs with potential growth opportunities. Short-term training can help individuals “up-scale” in a matter of months or in only a year or two, Odenthal said. 

“We get them connected with educational programs throughout the community, we partner with local training providers such as colleges and universities throughout Omaha. And as we’re doing that, we’re paying close attention to ensure that those jobs are going to be there in the future. We don’t want to put someone in a training program and then have that job disappear a few years from now. We want to make sure that whatever program we’re helping people get connected with is going to be around for a while, that they’re going to have job security and be able to provide for themselves and their families,” he explained. “It’s challenging, but it’s awesome, too. There’s a lot of success from it.”

The City of Omaha also provides workforce development funding through an annual CRED (Career Readiness to Eliminate Disparities) grant.  

“This grant helps people connect with short-term certification programs,” Odenthal said. “Recent classes have included OSHA-10 (workplace safety) training and we have a class coming up for hardwood flooring installation. These are the type of classes that are two to three days in length. we get people certified, we get them ‘up-skilled’ quickly, and we get them connected with jobs that pay significantly more than they’re currently making.” 

Goodwill Omaha is another organization that focuses on local workforce development. President and Chief Operating Officer Tobi Mathouser said Omahans know Goodwill for its donated goods retail program, but the organization also provides training and job-placement services to people with disabilities and other disadvantages or barriers to employment. 

“In 2021, Goodwill Omaha served nearly 2,800 individuals through our Employment Solutions, Work Experience, and YouthBuild programs. We provided 13,610 employment services, leading to 243 program participants finding jobs in the community. We are also proud to provide 637 jobs at Goodwill locations across our community,” Mathouser said. “Simply put, we would not be in existence without everyone who shops in and donates to our stores. If you think about it, everyone who shops in and donates to our stores is donating to Goodwill in support of our mission programming.”

YouthBuild AmeriCorps targets young adults ages 16 to 24.

“The average young adult (in YouthBuild) has dropped out of high school, and they’re really at a loss of how to continue their education. So, they come to us with the expectation that they will be spending half their days in a classroom working on obtaining their GED or high-school diploma, and the other half of the day they will be working on leadership skills, workforce skills and job readiness skills,” Mathouser said.  “They are literally out in the community, working on community-based projects, often with other nonprofits. The goal of the individuals is to leave that program with their high-school diploma, with leadership and workforce skills, and to be placed into
permanent employment.”

Most of the YouthBuild work is in construction. Businesses who are part of the program find new talent. Even participants interested in different career paths gain new skills that can apply to other careers, Mathouser said. Everyone wins. 

“Typically, our YouthBuild AmeriCorps program is funded by Department of Labor grants, but we don’t always receive these grants. This is a perfect example of how those sales and donations at our stores support our mission programs,” she explained. “When we don’t receive Department of Labor funding, Goodwill pays for this program to continue on with the staff, the participants and all of the operational expenses that go on
with that program.” 

Goodwill’s Employment Solutions program area is designed to help people with disabilities gain the job training, certification and skills they need to find independence and success through work. Its Work Experience program offers special-education students nearing the completion of high school the opportunity to gain exposure to work situations in supportive environments. This program is often a first step in transitioning from an educational setting to the working world, and it can improve their chance of successful job placement. 

Goodwill is also affiliated with the federal AbilityOne Program, which provides jobs at federal facilities to people with severe disabilities.

“We employ approximately 125 individuals on these AbilityOne contracts; 75 percent of the hours, at least, must be done by people with disabilities [...] We go through the process of hiring individuals who are eligible to hold these jobs, and we then place them in a supportive work environment,” Mathouser said. “We have individuals who have been with us for 40-plus years in the AbilityOne program. It’s absolutely amazing to provide an opportunity for individuals who may not have otherwise had an opportunity elsewhere. It provides a sense of purpose, a sense of joy and pride for a lot of individuals.”

Both Goodwill and Heartland Workforce Solutions are poised for expansion into south Omaha.

Heartland Workforce Solutions was awarded ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) funding that will support a new office on 24th Street one block north of South High School. The facility, which is undergoing remodeling, is slated to open next March and will provide the same services as the North Omaha location.  

“We’ll have better reach and we’ll be more accessible for more people. We’ll ensure there is a sufficient number of bilingual team members there so people coming into the center can be connected to the right resources in the language they speak,” Odenthal said. “That will make it even easier for job seekers to get connected to opportunities right away.”

Goodwill Omaha’s new South Omaha facility will open in January at 3327 L Street in Stockyards Plaza. It will include 15,000 square feet of retail space for a thrift store and donation center; and a 20,000-square-foot job training center that will also house community meeting space, administrative offices, and office space for lease to the community and Goodwill partners. 

“It’s been in the thoughts of Goodwill Omaha to get into the South Omaha community for a very long time. I’ve been with the organization 16 years and I can remember from a long time ago it being part of the strategic plan,” Mathouser, a South Omaha native, said. “I am so proud of our team for making this happen. There is such a need not only for a retail store in South Omaha, but also for the mission programing we are going to bring to this community.” 

The new facility will employ navigators representing several languages in addition to English who can provide personal assistance to people without technology access, who are new to the community, or who are simply unfamiliar with local resources. A new apprenticeship plan will also be launched at the facility, Mathouser said, for career tracks in health care (certified nursing assistant/CNA), social work/nonprofit case management, and
entry-level accounting. 

“We’ve all heard an employer say, ‘We can’t hire you because you don’t have the experience,’ and then you have the job seeker saying, ‘Well, I can’t get the experience because I can’t get hired.’ This is exactly what we’re trying to battle,” Mathouser said. “We’re getting the individual that experience, some on-the-job-training and formal curriculum training so they can get their foot in the door and on with their career path.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of B2B Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

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