'I recruit hard:' North Dakota worker shortage persists amid low national unemployment

Registered Nurse Lacey Johnsrud is the site instructor at the Sakakawea Medical Center in Hazen, N.D., for students preparing to become licensed practical nurses. Mike McCleary / Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — When Scott Wirth took the job of human resource manager at Roers three years ago, he had no trouble finding carpenters and laborers for construction projects.

“We had people walking in the door every other day filling out applications,” he said. “I almost joked the first year, there’s not a whole lot of recruiting I have to do.”

That’s not the case anymore at Roers, a development, construction and property management company with offices in Fargo and Dickinson. Wirth attributes the change to an upturn in the construction market with many commercial projects underway the past few years. On top of that, the company is navigating a gap in technical skills education as well as the retirement of longtime employees.

“I recruit hard and am always looking for new avenues, new ways to recruit,” Wirth said.

So are hiring managers from Wahpeton to Williston who are trying to address the workforce shortage that plagues North Dakota.


Job Service North Dakota, which tracks employment data, estimates the state currently has 14,000 job openings. A decade ago, North Dakota had 8,000. State officials say the real number today is closer to 30,000, given that some employers only advertise with one job posting when looking to hire multiple people for that role.

Some of the positions remain open a long time. A survey of employers last year found that 28% of openings go unfilled longer than three months.

Since the 2008 recession, North Dakota has enjoyed a low unemployment rate amid the oil boom that brought thousands of workers to the state, in addition to openings in sectors such as health care and information technology. But the workforce landscape, nationally, has changed in recent years.

"There were times in Williston where the train would arrive and an hour later our resource room was absolutely packed and people were outside waiting to get in to look for work," said Phil Davis, Job Service customer service area director. "Now, we’ve seen a slowdown in that because there are so many other job openings across the United States, and we are competing with those states to fill those jobs."

Arik Spencer, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber, noticed the change, too.

“When the economy around the country in different states turned around, a lot of people went back to where they’re from,” he said.

There's no clear relief in sight. North Dakota's workforce is projected to grow in the years ahead, with an additional 55,000 jobs anticipated by 2026 compared to 2016 figures. The fields expected to experience the most growth are health care and social assistance, as well as mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction.

The workforce shortage isn’t just problematic for employers. It holds back North Dakota’s economy, Spencer said.


“That impacts tax collection, that impacts schools, parks, a whole variety of things,” he said.

State efforts

Solving the state’s workforce shortage is no easy lift.

“This is going to take a long-term, more surgical approach,” Spencer said. “One thing you’re not going to see is a one-bill-fixes-everything solution.”

A report from the state Workforce Development Council last year made a host of recommendations guiding current efforts to end the shortage.

One example is removing barriers to entering the job market for people released from jail or who move from another state and lack a license to practice their profession here.

From private security to cosmetology, more than 80 occupations require licensing by various boards and commissions in North Dakota. The state Department of Commerce is studying potential reforms to the licensing process, focusing on how to preserve safety and the integrity of professions while minimizing barriers to entry, Commerce Commissioner Michelle Kommer said.

A new North Dakota law offers licensing reciprocity for military spouses. Other states are going further, said Kommer, who pointed to Arizona, which passed a major licensing reform bill earlier this year.

“If you are licensed in another state and you are in good standing, come on in,” she said, describing Arizona’s new law. “It’s remarkably simple.”


Career and technical education is another area getting a lot of attention.

A new program run by the university system offers scholarships and student loan forgiveness for people who pursue jobs in-state in high-demand fields that require a two-year degree.

“There’s a 45-year-old paradigm that says you have to get a four-year degree to get a good job,” Kommer said. “Parents believe this. Guidance counselors believe this. Students believe this.”

She used to believe it, too. But plenty of high-tech jobs offer good salaries right out of two-year degree programs, such as X-ray technicians or petroleum technicians, she said.

Changing that mindset is “crucial to being able to fill these really important jobs that we have here,” Kommer said.

The Workforce Development Council will develop strategies to address the recommendations in its report leading up to the next legislative session in 2021, she said.

Employers take action

While state government works on potential policy solutions, employers are coming up with their own ways to draw in workers.

Rural areas have the added challenge of keeping high school graduates from moving away for jobs or college in bigger cities.


In Mercer County, several health care facilities are affiliated with the Dakota Nursing program through Bismarck State College. Since 2011, up to six students annually have taken part in 11 months of classes at Sakakawea Medical Center in Hazen preparing to become licensed practical nurses.

“There’s a nursing shortage, and we wanted to find a way to help people in our area that wanted to go to nursing school yet don’t live in Bismarck or Dickinson and aren’t able to uproot their family and move,” site instructor Lacey Johnsrud said. “They can complete nursing education right here at home.”

The program has helped alleviate the shortage in the area, though Johnsrud said the hospital still relies on some traveling nurses, as do many other hospitals in the state.

Wirth, of Roers, has also been working with schools to try to promote his industry. He’s on several technical education advisory committees, including one at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

In years past, students pursuing studies in construction focused on residential-based applications.

“They brought in different businesses like Roers, and we helped rewrite curriculum so it’s all commercial-based now,” Wirth said. “The school looked at doing that to try to increase the number of students in their programs because all of us commercial construction companies are just clamoring for employees.”

Some of the advisers are now looking at how to market the program to prospective students and their parents. One selling point: Graduates will earn more money in their first job out of college compared to people entering construction who have never swung a hammer in their life.

In the state capital, the Bismarck Aero Center has started an apprentice program to train more aviation maintenance and avionics technicians. A local resident interested in those careers would otherwise have to attend school in South Dakota or Minnesota to enter the field, CEO Jon Simmers said.


“How do you find somebody who’s midway through their career?” he asked. “They have a house payment, a car payment, they have kids in school, they can’t just quit their jobs and start all over.”

To address that gap, the aero center applied to the U.S. Department of Labor for a subsidy to help hire apprentices at a higher wage while they go through a 30-month training program at the facility. Right now, two people are taking part.

Beyond schooling and training programs, a more grassroots approach is needed, too, Simmers said.

Work-of-mouth, even, might make for an effective recruiting tool. Simmers offered this example: If a resident aware of the need for aviation workers mentioned such a career to a child they knew who loved planes, that kid might grow up to one day work for the aero center.

The worker shortage is expected to continue for years in aviation and many other industries. Boeing’s latest outlook shows that nearly 200,000 more aviation maintenance technicians will be needed in North America over the next 20 years.

Simmers is glad the shortage is getting more attention throughout North Dakota.

“Workforce development is a big deal,” he said. “It’s talked about, but I don’t know if we’ve moved the needle."

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