Between Myth & Reality: Finding North Dakota’s Workforce

There’s a story making the rounds while North Dakota’s unemployment stands at the lowest in the country and the top three states with the highest unemployment figures – Nevada, Rhode Island and California –still have numbers in the double digits. It’s the one about the guy who, flat broke and out of options, takes his last couple hundred dollars to pay for gas in his car and heads to North Dakota. Arriving in one of the booming cities, he parks in a Walmart parking lot, sleeps in his car, finds a job and starts working instantly – and his life is turned around.

It’s a good story, but probably a bit apocryphal. North Dakota does have a booming economy, but its employers are utilizing the same background checks, drug tests and paperwork as anywhere else. It takes time to find work.

The part of the story that’s true is that there are jobs available, there is a demand for employees and they are coming from everywhere – including Slovakia.

Help Wanted

While Nevada leads the nation in unemployment, clocking in at 11.6 percent in May, followed by Rhode Island and California in descending order, one county in North Dakota reported an unemployment figure of 0.7 percent in April according to labor force estimates from Job Service North Dakota (Department of Commerce).

That’s a county that needs employees, and they’re coming from everywhere, both on their own and by request. It’s just not enough, not in time and possibly not with the right skills. The number one response from North Dakota employers to “What do you need?” is people, housing and day care.

North Dakota’s boom came about as a little bit of luck, some timely economic development planning, a recession that hit everyone else – and gas and oil in the shale in Williston.

In the early 1990s, state leaders looked at how to diversify the economy, make businesses really grow and make the state attractive to out-of-state businesses. Then they created a tax, legal and regulatory environment where businesses could thrive. “As a result we’re growing in Fargo, we’re growing obviously in the oil producing regions, Grand Forks is growing, Bismarck is growing, Bakken is growing,” said Andy Peterson, president, North Dakota Chamber of Commerce. “Businesses feel at home and welcome to participate here and the results have been really tremendous.”

The Big News

Across the U.S. people are aware that North Dakota’s economy is up and running – and running well – while many other states are still feeling the recession or just starting economic recovery. This is due in part to the oil and fuel industry located geographically west in the state, primarily in Williams County, the county that recorded the 0.7 percent unemployment rate in April.

In Williston, Williams County, there are more business representatives wanting to meet with Williston Economic Development director Tom Rolfstad every day than there are hours in the day to meet. These are people with money in their pockets, looking to make an investment, who don’t need a normal economic development package with incentives and lures, but an orientation to the market.

A market that’s benefitted from the national downturn, because as rural as North Dakota is, it may not have appealed to investors otherwise, Rolfstad indicated. Today there are investors coming in from Southern California, Denver, Vail, Aspen, Park City Utah and Southern Florida – nice places to live but with ailing economies. Williston Economic Development has added 1,500 new contacts to its database this year.

North Dakota is no. 1 in the nation currently in STEM careers – science, technology, engineering and math – and it’s also no. 1 when it comes to per capita growth. Which means that supply of people isn’t quite keeping up with demand.

Seriously, Help Wanted – Everywhere. In June, Job Service North Dakota (Department of Commerce) had 23,000 job openings, and fully two-thirds of them were outside the oil production counties, according to Beth Zander, director, North Dakota Department of Commerce Development Division. The job openings rate in April was 5.5 percent, and the rate of unemployed individuals per job opening was 0.5 percent.

Even areas in the state with higher numbers of unemployment aren’t seeing those numbers because of the recession, but because they’re areas that traditionally see higher unemployment rates. And for those residents willing to drive to a job or relocate, it’s not an issue.

Logically the biggest demand for skilled employees should be in the west where the crude oil and natural gas industry is working hard at making the U.S. competitive in the international world of energy, but the ripple effect is working its way across the state and across the country.

Not only is the state recruiting employees from elsewhere, but the boom is triggering the economy outside North Dakota. “To drill all the wells we have to drill we need a tremendous amount of steel pipe and steel tanks and valves and so on,” said Rolfstad. “The skills industry is being impacted by this with home construction, all the new power lines and power construction that has to go in, it’s stimulating the lumber industry and with all the trucking jobs we’re stimulating the transportation industry. You can kind of just keep going – this has had a pretty good ripple effect not just in North Dakota and the Midwest, but nationwide.”

In a country where the housing crisis slowed construction in many states to a dead halt, construction is booming. North Dakota, saw 8,900 building permits filed in 2011.

Andy Peterson, who clocked 65,000 miles on North Dakota highways in 2011, said on any given day you can see as many as 30 mobile housing units heading to the western side of the state. Construction workers are welcome.

Bridging the Workforce Gaps

Despite the 160 or so people who daily contact Williston job services, the workforce is tight, and employers are looking for innovative solutions. One established business in Dickinson is getting creative, bringing in workers from Poland and Slovakia to work for six months, rotate out and be replaced by others.

“It’s all about importing people, whether from another state, another region in the state, or another state or another country,” said Peterson. “People are coming to North Dakota to work.”

They’re coming to work, just not always to live. Delore Zimmerman, president and CEO of Praxis Strategy Group, an economic development research and strategy group working with the North Dakota Chamber on the 2020 Initiative, flies in and out of the state on a regular basis. “Inevitably I’m on the plane with someone living in Louisiana who’s working in North Dakota for six weeks and goes home for three. They have all these part-time workers.”

It’s not just the energy industry that needs people. Healthcare is looking – the hospital in Williston has 60 open positions. Retail and restaurant services, gearing up to meet new population needs, can’t find enough employees. Oil companies pay very competitive wages where retail traditionally can’t. So the Walmart in Williston is putting up retail workers from as far out of state as Houston and Louisiana in area hotels.

“It’s really expensive for them, but they’re managing to get their stores staffed,” said Peterson. “It’s a big, big challenge for those folks.”

It’s a challenge Job Service North Dakota is focusing on and part of the answering is housing. While oil company workers are in crew camps, their families are back home. Once there’s enough housing for workers to bring in their families, spouses will be looking for work and the retail and services sector will stand a chance of recruiting needed employees.

It’s not just the western side of the state that’s growing. Bismarck, southern central, is growing, in part because people who don’t want to be part of the oil and gas industry are moving.

At a public meeting in Wahpeton, Peterson met with 75 employers. “They’re dying for workers, ‘we need more workers, because we need to expand, it’s a challenge to get good workers here,’” Peterson said. “So it’s the biggest challenge, followed by housing and daycare and you can’t get farther from the oil fields than Wahpeton, which is about a block from Minnesota and 10 miles from South Dakota.”

On the eastern side of the state there’s a science and technology and research boom in a corridor between Grand Forks and Fargo and the second largest Microsoft campus in the U.S. employs 1,500 people.

In the northern reaches of the state, eastern central, areas like Devil’s Lake are making U.S. manufacturing work for them and producing farm implements that ship around the world.

North Dakota is running hot. When national unemployment was at 9.6 percent, North Dakota peaked at 3.6. Staffing businesses are popping up to get businesses staffed, companies like Bakken Staffing working to fill the void for service industries. Community colleges are creating training programs for industries needing skilled workers. There’s a welding program with mobile units throughout the state, said Peterson, because a good welder can get a job promptly.

Creating the Workforce

“There’s a shortage of workers to fill some of these positions and part of that is just that we have a small population,” Zimmerman said. “Another part is that, along with the rest of the nation, we have a big skill/job mismatch. The people with the right skills don’t live in the right places and that happens all over the country. What’s happening is the colleges and universities are trying to respond by expanding existing programs or developing new ones.”

TrainND was created in 1999 by the Chamber of Commerce task force. “They realized if we didn’t have a trained workforce, more businesses would leave,” said Deanette Piesik, CEO, TrainND – Northwest Continuing Education, Williston State College. So they researched best practices in other states and studied training programs, then broke the state into four regions serviced by Williston State College in the northwest, Lake Region State College in the northeast, North Dakota State College of Science in the southeast, and Bismarck State College in the southwest. Four regions to train employees for each region’s unique needs.

“We’ve worked with training and staffing with 400 companies and we do provide a lot of their training,” said Piesik.

While the companies TrainND works with haven’t expressed problems finding staff, the oil and gas industry companies are asking the program to spend more time on the training side. The companies are finding the people, but not the skills, so TrainND is working with oil field terminology and training in addition to safety training, and they’re upgrading skills of the current workforce, because once wells are drilled, they have to be maintained for their lifetime.

“We’re working to develop individuals with skills in those areas,” said Piesik. In the past it took more people to maintain a fie

ld – today it takes more technology, and therefore more training.

Training is addressed with electronics and instrumentation courses, TrainND partners with the industry to determine skill sets and what training is needed. Williston State College has developed a two year degree, a foundation for people interested in the lease operator program and the university is trying to develop a petroleum technician two-year certificate program to fill mid-level employment holes.

Families Wanted, Inquire Within

“We want good, skilled workers who want to be here and who want to make North Dakota home,” said Peterson.

Rolfstad believes there are enough people to staff Williston area businesses. “The challenge is to grow the town fast enough when you’re in a town that’s probably doubling already and probably going to triple or quadruple in a matter of a few short years. You need a little bit of everything.” Housing’s tight. Hopeful new hires may find themselves bunking 100 miles away from the job site.

When it comes to that mythological guy arriving with his carful of belongings only to strike it rich, there are warnings. It might be feasible to arrive with a car full of belongings in summer, but in the winter it’s downright dangerous.

“It’s not an accurate portrayal,” said Rolfstad. “We’ve certainly helped a lot of people who have been through some tough times but at the same time you know we’re trying to build a town and a city and not a big crew camp. We want to see families moving in. Employers, if they know they have an employee whose family is here and they have their own house and everything, that’s going to be a pretty cherished employee by the employer.”

“If an employer is active with recruitment and if they make sure North Dakota knows who they are, if they are competitive in wages and benefits and understand the value of training their workers, in building and keeping the workforce, we will find them the workers,” said Zander.

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