How Blueprint Nebraska Will Grow the Economy

How Blueprint Nebraska Will Grow the Economy

What needs to change to make Nebraska a more attractive place to live, work, start a business, invest for the future, and put down roots?

Of course, there isn’t one single answer. That’s why today, we’re talking about the many different ways Blueprint Nebraska can help grow the economy by harnessing our strengths, overcoming our weaknesses, and promoting opportunity across the state.

If you’d like to watch this episode on YouTube, click here. Or you can listen to the podcast on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

The title card for an episode of Nebraskanomics. Jim Vokal appears on the right, with text reading "How Blueprint Nebraska Will Grow the Economy." The Blueprint Nebraska logo is displayed at the bottom.

Now, as a Nebraska native, I was born here and raised a family here. All throughout the years, I’ve never felt like I had to leave to find a sense of belonging or experience my own version of the Good Life. 

But for all of Nebraska’s many strengths, we all know we can still unlock more of our potential, create more opportunity for people from different walks of life, and provide more reasons to choose Nebraska as a place to raise a family, start a career or business, invest, or retire.  

These are the problems Blueprint Nebraska aims to solve.

Blueprint Nebraska is an economic growth campaign managed in partnership between the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Aksarben Foundation, and the Platte Institute.

In fact, we’ve brought Blueprint Nebraska President and former Nebraska state Senator Jim Smith onto our team here at the Platte Institute. You’ll want to stay tuned because we’ll be sharing more episodes where Jim Smith will introduce you to the people engaged in the many Blueprint Nebraska initiatives.

Of course, while the state Chamber, the Aksarben Foundation, and the Platte Institute are each responsible for promoting and implementing Blueprint Nebraska, the input for the Blueprint vision came from Nebraskans like you, and its success continues to depend on collaboration from all communities.

This has been the case since Blueprint Nebraska’s founding in 2018. Back then, the project was launched under the leadership of University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds and Governor Pete Ricketts, after which it was immediately turned over to a larger network of Nebraska civic and business leaders.

These participants organized a Blueprint Nebraska Steering Committee, and 16 volunteer panels working on different aspects of economic life in Nebraska, known as Industry Councils. The Industry Councils brought expertise on topics from Agriculture to Workforce, Diversity, Entrepreneurship, Education, and more.

The task before these leaders was to develop a strategic plan to help Nebraska become the region’s most economically competitive state by the year 2030. But wisely, the plan they’ve put together wasn’t only designed around what they had in mind.

The Blueprint Nebraska effort incorporated the feedback of thousands of Nebraskans through surveys and more than 60 events and public forums all around the state. The product that came out of these programs is the Blueprint Nebraska Growing the Good Life report, which you can find on

Before we get too far into its solutions, let’s explain why this effort was necessary in the first place.

Nebraska has tremendous strengths in terms of land, location, and people. We are right in the heart of the country, we have abundant natural and economic resources including agricultural land, water, logistics infrastructure, and engaged communities in rural and urban parts of the state.

But like a lot of Midwestern and Plains states, we also have a people problem that prevents us from making the most of these assets. While our population is currently growing at about the national average thanks to lots of babies being born and immigration, on net, more of our residents still leave Nebraska than enter from other states. 

And in 2021, Nebraska had the country’s most severe workforce shortage, with three job openings for every one job seeker.

This means, compared to our competitors, we don’t have as many new people joining our workforce equipped with the skills to grow our economy. Without growth, we aren’t as well prepared to create or staff businesses, or enhance the services and amenities that allow our communities to continue being desirable places to live.

Of course, this affects every aspect of economic life from filling those jobs, to attracting employers to locate in the state, and increasing our tax base. Certainly, there’s plenty of room for more people in a big state like Nebraska, and lots of work to be done here. So the question becomes what we have to do to make the state more attractive for job seekers, and to persuade more people about the benefits of choosing Nebraska.

So often, politics tell us that Nebraska’s problems and solutions all align with a narrow set of partisan prescriptions. Some might say people would stay if we only had lower taxes. Others say it’s the state’s social policies that need attention. And these issues are pit against each other as if we can’t care about more than one thing at a time.

But there’s lots of different people living in Nebraska and around the country. Depending on who we’re talking about reaching, we’re going to have to pay attention to a wide variety of concerns, and Blueprint Nebraska helps us make sure we aren’t limiting Nebraska’s opportunities to grow. 

You won’t get any argument from me that lower taxes would be of benefit to Nebraska. But some who may want to stay in Nebraska currently may not be able to find the kinds of jobs they’re looking for, or the level of compensation they believe their skills are worth. 

In some communities, there aren’t enough affordable housing options to move into even if people wanted to, or there can be a lack of broadband internet, creating a barrier to remote work, education, or even health care.

And even if we have all the right material resources, economic policies, and affordability, people still have to feel welcome and find communities where they have a sense of belonging.  

The Blueprint Nebraska process keeps us from putting up blinders in the face of these realities, while focusing on solutions that can allow our state to compete. 

Even though people won’t always agree on every aspect of economic policy, the Blueprint Nebraska plan gives us a starting point in numerous areas where our fellow Nebraskans have already begun developing those solutions.

You can find a listing of each of the 16 industry councils at, each who provided ideas on everything from agriculture to the workforce. But today we’re going to focus on the four main growth themes that every Blueprint initiative is based on. 

  1. Powering our economy with people.
  2. Reimagining and connecting places.
  3. Building a simpler, more efficient, and effective government.
  4. Growing our most promising industry sectors.

Let’s start with the critical part to how Blueprint Nebraska aims to grow our economy: people. 

#1: Powering our economy with people.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state had a tight labor market. But as we move farther into the 2020s, changing demographics, new ways of working, and fierce competition for talent among employers and states are all colliding at once. 

Far and away, Nebraska business leaders identify the workforce shortage as our largest barrier to growth, and this is not just about lower-paying jobs at restaurants and retail stores. Nebraska has shortages in all kinds of professions. 

Most of the problem isn’t due to too few Nebraskans working. Nebraska has among the country’s highest workforce participation rates. 

Instead, we have to do a better job persuading more people to stay, return, or to attract new workers who haven’t considered Nebraska before.

Of course, some people are looking for attractions you can’t find in Nebraska, and there’s not much we can do in that case. But there’s still plenty we can control. 

We can address obstacles to starting a career path in Nebraska. 

That’s why one of the people-focused Blueprint initiatives is developing stronger public-private partnerships for internships, apprenticeships, and customized workforce opportunities that build our talent pipeline.

Educators, businesses, and learning institutions have to collaborate and build networks that help learners get trained and placed in fields where their skills are needed. And employers also need to be better engaged with the talent that’s out there and how it might help strengthen their teams.

Part of building a stronger workforce in Nebraska is addressing diversity and inclusion. And look: I get that those words come with political baggage for some listeners. But they shouldn’t. 

Making Nebraska an attractive place to live and work for people from every background is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also good business. If we’re going to attract talent from all over, and keep the talent we already have, we have to send a strong message that nobody will be disadvantaged in their career or life in Nebraska because of their background, and that they will see their concerns represented in our civic life.  

And if we want more people to come to Nebraska, we also have to be willing to invite them and speak about the benefits of Nebraska to people who don’t know about those benefits. That’s why Blueprint Nebraska supports developing a “Choose Nebraska” campaign for the state. The Department of Economic Development has already launched one effort with its advertisements titled, The Good Life Is Calling.

So far, these ads are targeted to people living in major metro areas like Kansas City, Denver, Chicago, and Minneapolis, and I think that’s a good approach. 

Nebraska has made some controversial decisions on advertising in the past, but most people aren’t going to suddenly think about moving to Nebraska all on their own. 

Someone has to give them a reason to come here that lines up with the reasons they might be considering leaving where they are now. Our job market, the relative cost of housing compared to many major cities, and amenities like health care and education are all good selling points.

Of course, we still have to continue to build on our strengths in those areas, which leads us to our next theme.

#2: Reimagining and connecting places.

Nebraska has lots of good jobs available, and if you can find a home to buy or rent, you might even think the price is reasonable. But that doesn’t address whether people will want to live in communities in Nebraska.

This is where Blueprint sets ambitious goals for rejuvenating Nebraska communities through housing, broadband, and transportation connectivity, all which add up to creating more desirable places. 

In short, we need to remove obstacles to building more and different kinds of housing options that are affordable and that enable people to live and work the way they want. 

Expanding access to broadband in Nebraska is also an important feature of placemaking. 

Bridging what’s called “the digital divide” allows communities, especially rural areas, to recruit or retain more workers and small businesses that rely on internet access. And it means residents can access similar services and amenities as people in more populated regions.

After all, who’d want to live somewhere you can’t stream the latest episode of Nebraskanomics?  

And if we want to make Nebraska an epicenter of economic opportunity, we need people to be able to travel to, from, and within communities in Nebraska more easily. 

Just like nobody knew what an Uber or a Lyft was a decade ago, there are going to be even more changes coming in transportation because of autonomous vehicles, the adoption of remote work, and the trend of more people choosing to live in the inner-cores of our cities, where walking, biking, or taking a bus really can be safe and convenient ways to get around, if they’re designed properly.

Now, none of these benefits are free. Businesses have to be willing to make investments in Nebraska, taxpayers have to feel confident about the taxes they’re paying to the state and local governments, and the government has to demonstrate that it’s doing worthwhile work with the public’s money. 

That’s why the third growth theme of Blueprint Nebraska is:

#3 Building a simpler, more efficient, and effective government.

If you’ve tuned into Nebraskanomics before, you already know there are plenty of ways Nebraska could create a simpler tax system, but that’s not all this growth theme represents. 

For Nebraska to become more welcoming to the workforce and businesses we need to grow, working with the government has to get easier and more accessible. 

For example, people who are licensed or trained for jobs in other states should not have to jump through too many hoops to be able to work in the same career field in Nebraska. And we ought to digitize more government services so people can easily find answers to questions they have about living, working, and doing business in the state.

For instance, did you know Nebraska is one of just a handful of U.S. states and territories that doesn’t provide public recordings of state legislative meetings? 

That really seems like a waste, because video of the Legislature is actually streamed live by Nebraska Public Media. But for whatever reason, the recordings aren’t posted afterward. 

If there’s a legislative hearing on a bill impacting your family or business, it’s not always possible to know what happened in a timely manner unless you personally attended the meeting in Lincoln, or had the chance to watch live. Usually, hearings are held during a weekday afternoon when most people are at work.

And one of the public issues many Nebraskans have questions about is why Nebraska’s tax system is the way it is and what can be done about it.

In the Blueprint Nebraska process, participants identified reducing or eliminating taxes as a top 3 concern for ensuring Nebraska’s economic vitality.

Simply put, when the government taxes something, people tend to produce less of it. Of course, we all have to pay taxes, but Nebraska currently places a heavy burden on the very people and amenities we need more of in our state. 

We need more people who want to earn paychecks here, we need more housing, and we need more investments in technology that help raise wages and productivity. And yet, Nebraska taxes paychecks, housing, and technology more than most of our peers and competitors. 

Meanwhile, we have a large number of tax exemptions, deductions, credits, and incentives that don’t address our current economic challenges and create inequities in how the tax burden is shared.

But things don’t have to stay that way. Blueprint Nebraska has developed a tax modernization plan, vetted by independent research, that can bring together urban and rural taxpayers, and lawmakers from all parties, to create a simpler, sustainable tax system that’s more supportive of economic growth in Nebraska. Check back soon for a future episode on that subject.  

And of course, in all that Blueprint Nebraska aims to accomplish, advancing legislation and government policy is only one part of the process. I’ve had the chance to be part of passing some good laws in my work at the Platte Institute. As important as that is, it still needs to be combined with follow-through on the part of people in the community.

This is especially the case for our fourth growth theme:

#4: Growing our most promising industry sectors.

When new policies allow innovative types of businesses to operate, for different kinds of housing to be built, or to welcome new residents–that’s all great–but we still need to inform and recruit people to take advantage of those opportunities. Otherwise, the opportunity only exists on paper. 

Connecting Nebraskans to opportunity isn’t just the government’s job. Nebraska’s businesses, nonprofits, and community leaders also need to be part of the solution. 

For example, we have a Business Innovation Act in Nebraska that matches private investments made for startups, especially in technology and value-added agriculture.

It matters how widespread the awareness and use of programs like the Business Innovation Act is, and how those of us outside government are working to encourage Nebraskans to participate. 

This is why I say Blueprint Nebraska is a collaborative project that requires broad participation.

If we’re not building an environment in which opportunity and entrepreneurship is accessible in every community, then we’re missing chances to retain and attract talent, and to build wealth that allows everyone to benefit from economic growth, both now and for generations to come.

We also need to change our perspective on what constitutes economic development. 

For decades now, Nebraska’s model has been based around incentivizing existing firms to remain or to locate. And although we have some great firms in Nebraska, we don’t have the people to staff them, and we’re behind our peers in terms of research & development, intellectual property, and patents, which means we’re missing opportunities for industry breakthroughs to happen in Nebraska that make this a better and more lucrative place to have a career.

The Blueprint Nebraska plan would rethink the way Nebraska designs incentive programs. It would double Nebraska’s support of Research & Development, and focus on the people who will help to grow our leading industries, by offering student loan relief incentives for graduates in high-skill and manufacturing fields.  

There’s much more to discuss about Blueprint Nebraska, but as a recap, our four main growth themes are:

  1. Powering our economy with people.
  2. Reimagining and connecting places.
  3. Building a simpler, more efficient, and effective government.
  4. Growing our most promising industry sectors.

If Nebraskans work together to advance solutions and initiatives in these four areas, there’s no limit to what we can achieve for our state in the years and decades to come.

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