'There is no silver bullet' to solving N.D.'s worker shortage, officials say

Michelle Kommer and Tony Grindberg field questions on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, during the The Chamber's Eggs and Issues event at the Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead.
David Samson / The Forum
Michelle Kommer and Tony Grindberg field questions on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, during the The Chamber's Eggs and Issues event at the Courtyard by Marriott in Moorhead. David Samson / The ForumDavid Samson / The Forum

MOORHEAD - North Dakota’s Commerce commissioner says there are possibly 30,000 unfilled jobs in the state, making workforce issues a top priority.

Low unemployment and nation-leading labor participation make it “a challenge” to fill those jobs with qualified applicants, Michelle Kommer told Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber members Tuesday, Jan. 5.

Job Service North Dakota had 13,373 jobs posted in December, she said.

“We are confident that the actual number is at least twice that,” she said, because job postings are voluntary and some employers, like Sanford Health, may post an advertisement seeking registered nurses, but rather than needing just one, they may need 250.

“We think there are 30,000 jobs (available) in North Dakota,” Kommer said..

It will require the private sector to work with the education system and state government to fill those jobs, she told attendees at the Eggs and Issues breakfast at Courtyard by Marriott.

“There is no silver bullet” solution, Kommer said.

“Workforce development has become economic development,” added Tony Grindberg, a former North Dakota state senator and vice president of workforce affairs for the North Dakota State College of Science.

“We have a wonderful education system. We need to build a system that provides more exposure (to a wide range of careers) and better experiences to students,” Grindberg said. “It’s about the pipeline and future investment that’s going to make a difference. Recruitment is a great strategy, but we’re not going to solve it by just recruiting people here.”

In December, North Dakota’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 2.7 percent was ranked fifth in the nation, tied with Vermont. That was just a few tenths of a percentage point from nation-leading Iowa at 2.4 percent, and Hawaii and New Hampshire at 2.5 percent.

(Minnesota, Nebraska and Virginia were tied for seventh place at 2.8 percent.)

At the same time, North Dakota has the highest labor participation rate in the nation - nearly 71 percent, Kommer said. The national rate is about 63.2 percent.

The North Dakota Workforce Development Council Summary Report, released in October 2018, said the state had several areas of need, including:

  • A technical skills gap. It’s part of a national shortage of qualified workers to fill “middle skill” technical careers that require training beyond high school, but not a four-year degree. Kommer said that rather than pursuing expensive four-year degrees (only about 60 percent of high school graduates complete a “four-year” degree in six years), students should consider jobs in energy, manufacturing, construction, transportation, health care, finance and information technology.
  • Youth engagement and early, diverse career exploration. Students need to be exposed to a wide array of career options and the pathways to achieve them.
  • Nursing and health care worker shortages. A shortage of nurses and other health care workers that has existed for 25 years is being exacerbated by retirements and the needs of an aging population.
  • Supporting groups with barriers to work. Those groups include former prison inmates, individuals with disabilities, and people without high school diplomas
  • Encouraging in-migration. That can include simplifying or removing occupational licensing requirements where appropriate, creating a more “military friendly” environment, and efforts to retain college graduates, get former residents to return, and marketing the state to others around the nation.

“We see it as braid that needs to be woven together,” Kommer said.

That may also have to include inducements to expand the availability of quality child care, she said.

“North Dakota has to be willing to serve a steak dinner. Croutons on the salad” of workforce issues won’t be enough, Kommer said.

Grindberg likes the conclusions of the summary report.

“I’m really excited about the future. We have a plan we can work from,” Grindberg said.

He said businesses are sponsoring students for vocational training and he praised efforts to support NDSCS’s Career Workforce Academy for Cass and Clay counties.

“We’re excited about what this means for our community,” Grindberg said.