Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hot Job Market in Cold North Dakota

What's the big driver for the job market in North Dakota? In a word: Energy. Everything else trickles down from there. Very simple. North Dakota offers a model that many other states could emulate. But other states have other ideas, which, in the end, are contributing to economic problems rather than overcoming them.

FEBRUARY 26, 2011

Help Wanted: Fargo Strains to Fill Jobs

North Dakota boasted a 3.9% average unemployment rate in 2010, the Labor Dept. said Friday, the third consecutive year the state has notched the lowest rate in the nation, or tied for it.

After such bulletins, North Dakota staffing agencies often are flooded with calls from out-of-staters looking to work there. Yet, few of those conversations translate into hires.

As the U.S. struggles with 9% unemployment, many companies in North Dakota are struggling to find workers and recast a reputation that some local officials blame on cold weather and a bad image stemming from "Fargo," an Oscar winner with the tagline: "A lot can happen in the middle of nowhere." (Most of the 1996 movie actually was set in Minnesota, locals are quick to point out.)

"It's not easy finding a candidate from the coasts who wants to move here," says David Dietz, vice president of Fargo staffing firm Preference Personnel Inc., which is trying to fill more than 80 positions. Three years ago a technology-sales vacancy—a typical Preference assignment to fill—would have had a maximum base salary of about $50,000; now that position will top out at $65,000, Mr. Dietz says.

Recruiting workers is a perennial struggle for the remote state. The low unemployment rate attracts lots of attention, but it's hard to convince many out-of-state residents to move there.

Most acutely needed: doctors, nurses and other health-care workers, as well as salespeople, from retail clerks to insurance agents. The western part of North Dakota, in the midst of an oil boom, is desperate for welders and engineers. Even truck drivers, who posted nearly 11% unemployment in 2010 nationally, are hard to find.

This year the state commerce department is hitting the road to find workers, scheduling job fairs in cities that tend to attract former Dakotans, starting with Minneapolis in May. The state expects between 40 and 50 employers and community organizations to attend and hopes to hold another fair in the fall.

Tech specialists are tough to hire, too. "We don't have people camped outside our office begging to work here," said Vern Dosch, chief executive of Mandan, N.D.-based National Information Solutions Cooperative. The 840-employee technology company plans to send representatives to the Minneapolis job fair.

In 2010, the number of out-of-staters who registered with the state's jobs site, jumped 25% from the previous year to 15,500, with many jobseekers coming from Idaho, Arizona and Texas. Yet the number of job postings increased even more, up 42% to 12,037. And the state isn't keeping up with demand in some professions. The state's total labor force grew by nearly 2,600 workers (including current and new residents) between 2009 and 2010, according to the Labor Dept.

In the meantime, North Dakota has about as many openings as jobseekers to fill them. According to the state's commerce department, there are about 12,000 openings on the state's website; an estimated 14,000 current residents are unemployed.

After reading about North Dakota's budget surplus and low unemployment rate, Bill Siderski, 42, and his partner, Jana Lynn, 39, moved to Fargo from Portsmouth, R.I., and Seattle respectively in April. Neither had job offers and within two weeks of arriving, they both found work through a temp agency. Now, Mr. Siderski is working as a researcher, and Ms. Lynn is in the midst of a yearlong contract position with Microsoft Corp., writing documentation for its call centers.

Mr. Siderski had been on unemployment since March 2009, after losing his job at a plumbing company. "We knew nothing about Fargo, but it was a chance for us to get jobs and start our lives over," he said. At times the flat terrain gets boring, says the couple, who once drove two hours to visit what was billed as a "rare North Dakota waterfall," to find a drop of about six feet. Mr. Siderski, who dabbled in Rhode Island's film community, says although Fargo's film scene isn't as vibrant, the couple are happy with the move.

"Your whole outlook on life changes when you have a job to go to every day," said Ms. Lynn.

Historically, North Dakota towns have had quirky ways of attracting newcomers. In 2005, Hazelton, N.D., began offering out-of-state movers free land and up to $20,000 toward a home purchase. Other towns have offered free memberships to golf clubs or curling clubs. Only one family took Hazelton up on its offer of free land. But last year, the family said they would move back to Miami, citing wind chills of 50 below zero and a poor relationship with their neighbors, according to news reports.

This year, state representative Joe Heilman introduced a bill that wouldo allow students who stay in North Dakota todeduct up to $2,000 in college student-loan payments from their state taxes, in part to try to retain skilled individuals.

"Our state situation in general should be attracting more people," Mr. Heilman said. "People don't like our winters, but aside from moving the state, I don't know what to do about that."

The bill was voted down last week

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