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Already struggling to fill thousands of jobs, Fargo-Moorhead now must woo workers to build diversion

The Fargo region, already struggling to fill almost 7,000 job vacancies, will have to draw workers from far and wide to construct its massive flood protection project.

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Troy Becker / The Forum

FARGO — A few months from now the flat fields around here will be teeming with heavy machinery moving tons of earth to protect the cities from the scourge of flooding.

But it will take more than machines. It will take people. Lots of people to survey, design and manage the nation’s first-of-its-kind flood mitigation project. More people to operate the heavy equipment, build the bridges that will span the 30-mile diversion channel and the gated structures that will regulate the flow of raging water.

The Red River Valley Alliance, the international consortium of companies that will build the channel, bridges and aqueducts, will need to hire 800 workers when construction reaches its peak in 2024. Work on diversion control structures will continue, along with work on a 22-mile embankment.

Finding all those skilled people won’t be easy. The region of southeastern North Dakota dominated by Fargo had 6,569 job openings in November. Fargo’s unemployment rate in October, the most recent available, was 1.8%.

The hiring push, which will start to intensify in the spring, comes after Amazon opened its new Fargo warehouse, with a need for 1,000 workers, and as fast-food restaurants are advertising for jobs paying $17 or $18 an hour, along with sign-on bonuses.

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The need for so many workers arrives at a time when labor markets have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. All regions of the country are short of workers and competing for labor.

It’s all making Joel Paulsen, executive director of the Metro Flood Diversion Authority, a bit worried. His organization, a partnership of local governments that oversees the $3.2 billion flood-control project, has tried three times without success to hire a finance director.

“We are in a tough spot here with the labor market in Fargo because of the low unemployment rate,” he said.

The Red River Valley Alliance’s joint construction firm, ASN Constructors, will be hiring 200 professional positions, including a variety of engineering roles, management and support positions. That’s in addition to about 800 skilled construction trades workers.

Filling those highly skilled positions will require casting a wide recruiting net.

“Fargo-Moorhead is no longer competing for workforce at a regional level,” Paulsen said. “We’re competing for workforce at a national level.”

It will take a huge sales and marketing effort to draw people for the project and to fill all the openings employers have been trying desperately for months to fill.

“We have to get the word out about the opportunities here in Fargo and North Dakota,” Paulsen said. “We need to recruit more people.”

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Already, some employers are worried that an already difficult hiring environment will be exacerbated once ASN ramps up its hiring efforts, said Carey Fry, director of Job Service North Dakota’s Fargo Workforce Center.

Job Service North Dakota will be involved statewide in helping to fill apprenticeships and other on-the-job training opportunities the diversion project will create, she said.

Fry has seen signs at restaurants offering to pay workers $17 an hour. Paulsen said he has seen signs at fast-food restaurants offering $18 an hour.

“These wages have shot up just since the epidemic,” Fry said.

The urgent need for workers is reminiscent of the labor demand in North Dakota’s Oil Patch during the boom — but without the magnet of national publicity that helped to lure people, she said.

During the boom, the state ran an advertising campaign with the theme, “Find the good life in North Dakota.”

“You can bet we’ll be doing more of that in the coming months,” Fry said.

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Work on the Red River inlet structure south of Horace, North Dakota, continues June 18, 2021, as part of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.
David Samson / The Forum

ASN is using the internet to post job openings , with current listings including utilities engineer, survey manager, document control manager, roadway engineer, quality assurance manager, construction scheduler, safety manager, structures engineer, geotechnical engineer and computer-assisted design operator.

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“The hiring needs that we have now are very specialized, mostly in the engineering area,” said Alan Gemmel, ASN’s interim human resources manager.

Given the tight labor market environment that exists around the country, ASN will have to be flexible and innovative, he said.

“We’re going to have to adapt as we go along,” Gemmel said. “It’s not an easy time for anyone in HR,” shorthand for human resources.

ASN is required to offer apprenticeships for 20% of its workforce, so workers can be trained on the job.

“These are job opportunities for people to learn a new trade and take it with them when they’re gone,” Gemmel said, adding that construction is expected to last five years.

Fortunately, he added, “There’s a tremendous amount of technical and vocational education in the Fargo-Moorhead area.” ASN also is working with universities in North Dakota and Minnesota to build a talent pipeline.

“We’re still getting our strategy built,” and working with Flint Group on a marketing campaign, Gemmell said, adding that the effort will involve a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction with schools in the region.

The hiring process will follow a “bell curve” trajectory, gradually rising until reaching a peak, then tapering, Gemmell said. “April is really the time that we’ll gear up for some utility relocation,” he said. Surveying work has started.

ASN — a partnership of ACCIONA, Shikun & Binui and North American Construction Group — is not out to poach workers from employers in the area, Gemmell said. Once construction is completed, Red River Valley Alliance will operate the flood-control system for at least 30 years, so it takes a long-range view, he said.

“We’re part of the community,” Gemmell said.

Although Gemmell declined to say what wage levels ASN is offering, he said pay and benefits will reflect the challenging environment.

“The market is what it is,” he said. “We’re all fighting for people right now. That’s going to drive the wage conversation.”

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Concrete is poured for a dam wall on July 27, 2020, at the Red River inlet structure south of Horace, North Dakota, as part of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.
David Samson / The Forum

The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce and partners including the Greater Fargo/Moorhead Economic Development Corp. have been working aggressively for several years to recruit workers — an effort that is getting a boost because of the diversion.

Given the need to fill so many professional positions, the Chamber has created a concierge service to help managers and trailing spouses relocate with “customized introductions” to the community.

Ambassadors will introduce newcomers to the community. Ads featuring Fargo as an inviting place to live and work are targeting the Twin Cities and later will expand to other markets and welcome parties that are “almost a community roadshow” will ensure that newcomers are aware of community assets, said Shannon Full, president and CEO of the Chamber.

The chamber is working not only on attracting talent, but also in developing a “hidden talent” pool, she said. “It will take multiple facets to address."

Failing to fill needed positions would hamper not only the diversion but also is the greatest obstacle to growing the metro area’s economy.

"It’s really imperative that organizations like ours and the EDC do this right,” Full said.

In October, the Chamber launched Ignite FMWF , a labor recruiting initiative to help match job seekers with employers. The effort’s website has a job board of vacant positions and more than 1,200 videos to help students and job seekers explore opportunities as well as a library of industry-developed education and training materials.

“It’s a really dynamic system,” Full said.

One of the challenges will be to make Fargo-Moorhead stand out when so many areas are vying for workers. A stronger talent attraction effort is coming.

“That will be the next big piece,” Full said. “We anticipate launching that in certain markets in a few months.”

In January or February, business leaders will bring back investors to keep financing the $4 million “ Fueling Our Future ” campaign, with a mission of boosting the region’s talent pool, prosperity and enriching quality of life.

“It is not inexpensive to do this work, but it is desperately needed,” Full said. North Dakota has $15 million available for regional workforce grants, about $4 million of which could be available for the Fargo region.

Amenities and quality of life considerations are increasingly important factors in recruiting workers, said Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Greater Fargo/Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

Fargo has a “ Why live in Fargo-Moorhead ” website to tout the area’s job opportunities and quality of life attributes, including recreation, arts and entertainment, housing, education and health care.

Local employers are well aware of the need to increase wages and benefits, Raso said. “They’re doing that,” he said, adding as an example that a couple of local manufacturers have increased their base compensation by 30%.

Current recruitment and promotion efforts are an extension of work that’s been done for years, Raso said.

“This conversation started years ago,” he said. “What’s different now is the pressure that’s being felt holistically. I think the next six months, as we get into next summer, the things we’ve been working on for the past year will be coming into fruition.”

But Raso agreed with Full that success in dealing with the workforce challenges will require significant investment, with public and private sectors working together. “We’re realistically talking about hundreds of thousand if not millions of dollars annually,” he said.

The future is bright, and Fargo isn’t lacking for selling points, Raso added.

“The good news is we’re not selling smoke and mirrors,” he said. “It’s a great place.”

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Concrete is poured for a dam wall on July 27, 2020, at the Red River inlet structure south of Horace, North Dakota, as part of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.
David Samson / The Forum

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