Spring Flooding Worker Shortage

Lincoln veteran Scott Smith (right) talks to FEMA representative Kristina Pooler about available FEMA jobs, at an April job fair in Lincoln, Nebraska.

LINCOLN, Neb.  — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is facing an unexpected challenge in meeting the needs of the many people affected by this spring’s widespread flooding and violent storms: a strong economy.

Tasked with responding to natural disasters that seem ever more frequent and destructive, the agency finds itself further challenged by the robust job market and an inability to match what the private sector can offer, in many cases. FEMA officials are turning for help to retirees, recent college graduates and those who lost their jobs to the disasters, though they’re finding few available workers in many of the rural communities that are in some of the hardest-hit areas.

In no place is that clearer than Nebraska and Iowa, which were ravaged by floods and have some of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. Iowa’s had the third-lowest unemployment rate in April, at 2.4 percent, while Nebraska’s was the ninth-lowest, at 2.9 percent.

“The low unemployment rate certainly makes it a little more of an uphill battle, as it is for everyone in the state trying to attract workers,” said Herb Doering, a FEMA human resources manager who runs the hiring program in Nebraska.

FEMA has gone to job fairs and sent emails to about 20 local colleges, with a focus on students who might be interested in an emergency management career, Doering said. He said the agency tries to focus on hiring students, retirees, veterans and those who lost their jobs or homes in the natural disasters. The agency also is working with the Nebraska Department of Labor to recruit employees.

“We’re trying to get the word out to attract as many applicants as we can, whether it’s students, retired folks or veterans,” he said. “It’s a continuous effort.”

FEMA officials are dealing with the same problem nationally, though they say it hasn’t hindered their ability to respond to disasters.

“With record low unemployment and rising wages, it can be difficult to recruit and retain talented workers — particularly in the leadership positions requiring technical, supervisory and programmatic experience — for intermittent positions,” said FEMA spokesman Michael Hart.

The agency maintains a large workforce to respond to disasters, but it is constantly looking to hire new employees, Hart said. It has increased its national incident management workforce by 25 percent since Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and has hired more than 1,000 local, temporary workers to help respond to disasters in their communities, he said.

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