This article is part of a five-part series looking at the most up-and-coming U.S. markets for commercial construction.
Jean Petsch, executive director of the Associated General Contractors' Nebraska Building Chapter has a saying about what's made Omaha such a desirable place to do business. “We’re in the middle of nowhere but also in the middle of everything.”
She’s referring to the city’s location in the heart of the Midwest but within quick proximity to many major metropolitan areas including Chicago and Denver. “It’s not six hours on a plane like from the East Coast to the West Coast,” said Petsch. “We’re kind of in the middle.”
A recent influx of new businesses and residents drawn to the area have fueled a construction boom that made Omaha the fastest-growing construction job market in the country between October 2018 and October 2019. According to AGC analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the metro area saw a 20% increase in construction jobs over that time period, ascending from 29,600 to 35,500.
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Availability of reasonably priced land, low labor costs and inexpensive electricity rates help make Omaha ideal for companies looking to build offices, data centers and warehouses, Petsch told Construction Dive. The region also enjoys a source of plentiful water, which makes the area attractive to companies looking to avoid drought issues that are common further west.
Companies like Google, Facebook, PayPal and Traveler's Insurance are all active in the region, and a number of tech startups are making their mark, too, including Toast, Spreetail, Buildertrend, Flywheel and Hudl. The city is also enjoying a burst in the tourist/leisure market, with conventions and events like the College World Series bringing a steady stream of visitors.
For instance, local Fortune 500 contractor Kiewit Building Group has begun a nearly $300 million renovation of the city’s downtown riverfront that will include recreational facilities and an event pavilion. ConAgra’s $500 million redevelopment of its former headquarters is also planned for the riverfront area. The 23-acre, mixed-use project will eventually include seven new buildings that will feature 900 residences, up to 200 hotel rooms, 500,000 square feet of office space and 80,000 square feet of retail.
Higher education institutions like the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University are undergoing major building campaigns, Petsch said, and renovations and expansions of aging public schools are helping to make room for an influx of families with young children, she said.
In addition, cleanup from last year’s historic flooding of the Missouri River is still ongoing, Petsch said, and includes new highways and bridges and at least $1 billion of new levees in a five-state area, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The search for workers
Finding labor to fuel all of this construction has been AGC members’ biggest challenge, Petsch said.
“To get the brightest and best people to the construction industry is always going to be a steep problem because people have so many other career options, so really, our first big challenge is to fight the stereotypes that people have about construction and get them to even look at our industry,” she said. "The big question is, can we beat out our competitors who are also looking for workers in manufacturing, IT and health care."
A number of state and local initiatives in recent years have been aimed at boosting workforce development, according to the Omaha World Herald, and for young people interested in construction, the Nebraska area and Omaha in general offer a wealth of career development options. The area has an array of construction-related programs from a four-year degree at the University of Nebraska's college of engineering or Wayne State to associated degree programs at Metropolitan Community College, which opened a $90 million Construction Education Center two years ago.
The facility replicates an authentic jobsite and offers programs for the beginning student seeking entry-level employment to advanced skills training opportunities for professionals already in the field.
“Luckily, we have fantastic programs in place to help train and educate the workforce,” Petsch said.