GRAND FORKS -- Be careful when assuming it’s easier to hire workers in western North Dakota in the years after the Bakken oil boom. City and business leaders in Minot are quick to correct anyone who hints at that assumption.

“During the boom, we actually found it much easier to hire people from across the country because of the (national) recession,” said Steve Eberle, vice president and chief operating officer of Minot-based Ackerman-Estvold, an architecture and engineering firm. “We had success getting people from outside to come here. Now, the rest of the country’s economy has picked up. A lot of (former workers from the Minot area) went back home.”

Ackerman-Estvold has had some positions open for a year. And competition for those workers is getting stiffer, since everyone – including the government – is seeking employees.

“We are literally competing with municipalities, counties and DOTs for the same workers,” Eberle said during a roundtable discussion Tuesday in Minot, sponsored by Grand Forks-based magazine Prairie Business. “There are only so many (qualified employees). It drives up prices, wages and benefits.

“It’s a bit of a vicious circle.”

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There are an estimated 30,000 open jobs in North Dakota, a state that has an unemployment rate of just 2.5%. The well-documented void has become a focus of Gov. Doug Burgum, who spoke about it during his annual State of the State address last week in Grand Forks.

A proposal to potentially ease the problem – and it’s only a proposal for now – could be coming.

Burgum, during his speech, noted that Arizona has allowed license reciprocity for residents who have moved there from another state. It means someone who has a professional license elsewhere can practice the same profession in Arizona without a cumbersome and long relicensing process.

Burgum’s reference comes after North Dakota last year created license reciprocity for military spouses, an effort specifically undertaken to make the state more military friendly and to appease the wishes of the secretaries of the Air Force, Army and Navy. Yet for those who move to North Dakota without military ties, Burgum said there is still “too much red tape” entangling the process among the scores of licensing organizations in the state.

“We are losing ground to states like Arizona,” Burgum said. “Arizona is recognizing any other state’s certification to allow you to work. If you are a teacher, or lawyer or counselor, if you have (a license) in another state, you can work in Arizona.”

Comments made by Burgum during his Wednesday speech hinted that he is leaning toward expanded license reciprocity in North Dakota.

“When you attract workforce, there is always going to be a trailing spouse – not just in the military,” he said.

After the Wednesday speech, state Sen. Scott Meyer, R-Grand Forks, said he spoke to Jace Beehler, the governor’s policy adviser, about Arizona’s reciprocity laws. Meyer was the prime sponsor of the military spouse reciprocity bill that breezed through the last legislative session. Meyer’s legislation, Senate Bill 2306, was unanimously passed by both houses of the Legislature.

Meyer said it’s time to begin talks about a potentially wider reciprocity program like Arizona’s.

“We should sit down soon to look at that law and see what works and what may not work,” Meyer, who is up for reelection, said.

The governor’s communications director, Mike Nowatzki, said that since North Dakota’s Legislature will not reconvene for another year, it’s too early to speculate on specific legislative proposals. However, he also said it’s on the governor’s mind.

“Yes, expanded reciprocity is certainly being explored and the governor is passionate about making progress on this topic,” Nowatzki said Thursday.

Work group formed

Arizona last year passed its new law, which still requires workers to apply for a license through the appropriate licensing board. The law streamlines the process for workers who have been licensed in another state for at least one year and are in good professional standing.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, during his 2019 State of the State address, said “workers don’t lose their skills simply because they move to Arizona.” Later, lawmakers passed HB 2569, making Arizona the first state with wide occupational license reciprocity.

Other states are now following suit. Virginia’s Legislature, for instance, introduced a universal reciprocity bill two weeks ago.

Burgum said that during more than 70 listening sessions for his Main Street Initiative, he has “heard common challenges that are facing communities large and small and it’s no surprise that workforce retention and attraction rise to the top of their lists.”

“Now more than ever,” Burgum said, “North Dakota is competing with the rest of the world for workforce.”

Michelle Kommer, appointed commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Commerce in 2018, said a wider reciprocity program is a talking point at the Capitol, but she is taking a measured approach to the idea.

“We have to consider all viewpoints, right?” Kommer said.

A work group has been formed to investigate the idea; its first meeting will be Feb. 26. The group hasn’t been formed with the goal of pushing universal license reciprocity, according to Kommer.

“We’re not jumping to any conclusions at all,” she said, noting that she is “very intent on understanding what our perceived problem is before we propose a solution to supposedly fix those problems.”

According to Kommer, there are more than 80 occupations licensed in the state, governed by more than 60 agencies. She said North Dakota is among the most regulated states and “the pack is pulling away from us.”

The work group, she said, has three goals: To better understand the state’s current reciprocity environment; to learn about best practices; and to determine “where we’re at, where we want to be and identify a path to get there.”

“We don’t have any preconceived notions of what reform looks like, but we know there is opportunity,” she said. “We go into it with the expectation that we will have suggestions for our legislators in terms of how to remove these unnecessary barriers. … My intention is to be helpful.”

When asked if she thinks wider reciprocity in North Dakota – in the same vein as in Arizona – would be good for the state, she hesitated for a moment.

“Umm, I don’t know that I’m prepared to say that. I am too intentional about wanting to understand the pros and cons,” she said. “But it’s certainly something we need to have an open mind about. … My preference is we do this together and not to anyone.”

She does, however, believe some sort of bill will come forth in an upcoming session of the Legislature.

“And again, I hope the work of this subcommittee will influence that,” she said. “We have a workforce shortage. … As we have seen other states open their borders, so to speak, we cannot find ourselves left out of that competition.”

In Grand Forks, “hiring is a very big issue,” said Keith Lund, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

“It’s the No. 1 concern for the companies we speak to,” Lund said. “I think full reciprocity is a conversation well worth having. My first reaction is that it would be extremely positive. In a workforce environment in the Grand Forks region and throughout all of North Dakota, I’m not sure why we would want to withhold the ability for anyone to get a job they are qualified for and to contribute to our economy. There may be some issues that I’m not thinking of or not aware of that might need to be discussed, but I think something like this would be a positive for the state.”

At the Prairie Business roundtable meeting last week in Minot – held the day before Burgum’s State of the State speech – the hiring crisis was topic No. 1 among those in attendance.

Kevin Black, president of Creedence Energy of Minot, called it “an enormous challenge.”

He said it has become nearly impossible to find enough “qualified individuals with (commercial driver’s licenses), experience in the trades, you name it.”

“We have exhausted the existing pool here in North Dakota,” Black said.