Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Nebraska needs more skilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs throughout the state, the president of a leading business group said Wednesday.

Barry Kennedy, president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the shortage has become the greatest challenge that its manufacturing members face. Many have come to view the issue as more important than taxes and government regulation, he said.

“Our biggest challenge right now is finding the people to fill a lot of available jobs, good-paying jobs, but obviously those people do have to have certain skill sets,” Kennedy said. “Making sure that we create ways to help them get those skill sets is the big challenge right now.”

Kennedy said businesses are looking to hire more people but are struggling to find employees who are trained to work with sophisticated technology that’s often required in the profession. His remarks came during an appearance at the Capitol with Gov. Dave Heineman, who proclaimed October as Nebraska Manufacturing Month.

Heineman said the shortage demonstrates the need to boost enrollment in Nebraska’s community colleges and universities. He said the state has made some progress through the InternNE program, which provides $1.5 million a year in job-training money along with private matching funds to encourage Nebraska companies to hire paid interns.

“We need an educated, flexible and dynamic workforce,” Heineman said.

Kennedy said his group is reaching out to high schools and community colleges to try to attract more young people to the job. The chamber has also traveled to trade shows at military bases in Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado.

Nebraska’s unemployment rate has remained far below the national average. The preliminary rate held steady in August at 3.6 percent, while the national rate was 6.1 percent, according to the Nebraska Department of Labor.

Chris Roth, president of Reinke Manufacturing Company in Deshler, said his company needs workers with specific training in computer technology, math and science. The company makes center-pivot irrigation systems and exports them around the world, and relies on robots and highly technical manufacturing equipment.

“Those take some intelligent, highly skilled folks to run that equipment,” Roth said. “It’s expensive equipment, and it’s very precise. Those folks (who operate the equipment) really need to know what they’re doing.”

The average manufacturing job in Nebraska pays nearly $55,000 a year and the industry accounts for nearly 10 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the governor’s office. Heineman said he plans to visit manufacturers in Lincoln, Deshler, Lexington and Norfolk later this month.