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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now, we're going to look next behind what appears to be a positive number. It is Nebraska's low unemployment rate of 4.8 percent.

Here's Clay Masters of NET Radio.

CLAY MASTERS: It's a muggy day in the eastern Nebraska City of Columbus.

Inside the main shop of Duo Lift, about 50 employees are welding, grinding and painting trailers that are mainly used to haul fertilizer. Large industrial fans vigorously stir the air. "Witchy Woman" plays on a classic rock radio station.

The business has been in Ben Hellbusch's family since his grandfather started the company in the back of his milk barn in the early 1940s. Hellbusch is in his 20's, has red hair and a problem that isn't so common these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF POWER SAW)

BEN HELLBUSCH: Typically, it's difficult to find good help around here, yeah, 'cause everybody's got a job. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MASTERS: Hellbusch is looking for good painters. He says it's hard to find skilled workers around here because there's a lot of agricultural manufacturing in the city. He says because the company is careful not to over-hire in booming times, it avoids layoffs when things slow down.

HELLBUSCH: And it seems like every 10 years, there's a high and a low in the ag industry, where you're either walking in tall cotton or you're wondering if you're going to get payroll this week. And so the way we do it is try to stay on an even keel.

MASTERS: In addition to the manufacturing company, Ben Hellbusch is a co-owner of a farm-equipment sales company, and he farms 180 acres with his brother. And holding multiple jobs is common in rural Nebraska.

Eric Thompson is an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He says along with a high workforce quality, Nebraska has been able to keep unemployment low because several key industries in the state have done well, and the housing bubble hasn't been as severe.

ERIC THOMPSON: The wealth of Nebraska families has held up much better in this recession than it has for families, you know, in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, places where people have seen the value of their biggest asset, their home, plummet - not so in Nebraska. Prices have stayed steady or perhaps fallen just a few percentage points.

MASTERS: Barbara Bittner and her husband still own a home in New Mexico. Originally from Nebraska, she left Albuquerque in April, just months after her husband lost his job at a civil engineering firm. They moved back to Nebraska for a job she got as a technical writer at a medical university in Omaha.

BARBARA BITTNER: This was the first interview that I had because we were looking at various areas. We had lived in Denver. We had lived in Kansas City, and, you know, I'm from here, so we were looking in all three areas. He was looking much harder than I was. Really, from the time I applied to the time I got the job, it was probably three weeks.

MASTERS: But Randy Cantrell, who studies rural economics for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says the unemployment statistics can be misleading for a largely rural state. He says a lot of rural workers don't show up in those stats because they hold multiple jobs. And more rural workers are becoming self-employed.

RANDY CANTRELL: Let's say I do auto and tractor and truck repairs on the farm. I've got tools in my truck. I've got a welder. I drive around and I do these things for folks. I may have seen my income cut significantly during this recession, but to the extent that I still do that at all, I'm still working. I'm still making money. And even if I lost it all, I couldn't be unemployed because I was working for myself.

MASTERS: While Nebraska's unemployment rate rose in the first half of 2010, the continuing strength of its agriculture economy seems to have provided an employment cushion during these tough economic times.

For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters.

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