GRAND FORKS — Suezette and I made a run to town last week. We visited seven businesses in Grand Forks. Five of them had “help wanted” posters. At a sixth, a hair salon, all the talk was of restaurants cutting hours, even closing some days. The seventh was an office on the University of North Dakota campus.
At home, the grass is untidy because the local lawn service can’t find people to ride the mowers.
All of this set me thinking about workforce issues once again. And, as it did last week, that led me to the immigration question. It is a big question and answers have been elusive. Frankly, I’ve been reluctant to write about it because immigration isn’t in my portfolio. I write about North Dakota issues.
But increasingly immigration is becoming a North Dakota issue. New Americans could be recruited to fill some of the 30,000 jobs the state’s official website brags about. The site is nd.gov/working-nd.
It’s likely those jobs can’t be filled with U.S. residents alone. Every North Dakotan knows the state has an image problem, and that makes recruiting a challenge.
Recruiting has always been a challenge, except in the Great Dakota Boom that prompted European immigration to the state. My own grandfather bought a ticket from Bremen, in northern Germany, to Bismarck. The first part of the trip was by sea, of course, and the next part by rail. The final leg involved a wagon and a team of horses.
This was in 1898. North Dakota’s population kept growing until 1930, fueled by additional immigration. A high birth rate pushed growth until 1930, when the state reached its highest population — until the latest census, which showed an increase of 13.1% in a decade. Still, North Dakota is the third least populous state.
North Dakota has seen other booms, and that experience sharpens the point that recruitment is hard. One of these occurred in the 1960s, when construction workers and support staff flooded the state to build military bases.
The class of 1965, my class, was the largest in my hometown’s history. For a long time, Suezette and I joked that we were the only members of our class who stayed in the state. It wasn’t strictly true, but exaggeration makes the point. Many of our classmates left. Some of them were children of construction workers who built Minot Air Force Base and the missile field surrounding it. Some of them were the grandchildren of homesteaders without apparent opportunities.
Much of the increase in population in the last decade is a consequence of the Bakken Oil Boom, especially in the northwestern corner of the state. Ripple effects swept across the state, benefitting the Red River Valley cities of Grand Forks and Fargo as well as Bismarck and Minot farther west. Such oil field towns as Stanley, Williston and Watford City exploded. In an article printed in 2010, I observed that “Nothing is big enough in my hometown, Stanley, North Dakota.”
The oil boom continues, but it has slackened. Many people lured here by high wages and good jobs left when the price of oil fell, and the economy contracted.
All this leaves North Dakota in a pinch: Too much to do and too few people to do it all. There’s little chance that North Dakota can recruit workers to fill those 30,000 jobs, just as it wasn’t realistic to think that established farmers would flood west to take up homesteads on the plains. European immigrants helped to build North Dakota. In the 1920 census, only New York had a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than North Dakota.
Those immigrants wanted land and they wanted work, and they were readily absorbed into American society. Of course, not all immigrants were quite so welcome. Chinese laborers, especially, faced discrimination, and railroad land agents working in Europe discriminated among ethnic groups. North Dakota actually had an immigration department that concentrated on Germany and Scandinavia, especially Norway.
Today’s immigration crisis is multi-faceted, but it’s driven by the same impulses that prompted northern Europeans to come to America. The rules for immigrants were much laxer at the time because most Americans saw the value of immigrants. That part of the equation is quite different today. Yet efforts to discourage immigrants have been ineffective.
The only permanent solution is to find ways to let people in rather than trying to keep them out. There need to be standards. It’s appropriate to screen for health issues, as Europeans were screened when they arrived in New York. Of course, it’s appropriate to identify criminals who want to sneak in. But making it illegal to come won’t deter desperate people.
Money that’s spent keeping people out could be used to train people who are let in. North Dakota is especially well equipped to do just that. We have a tech school and we’re building up career academies around the state. It wouldn’t be a stretch to provide training in Spanish at the same time immigrants learn English as a second language.
We can afford to do this.
And we should do it.
A labor shortage is a drag on the economy. It also diminishes quality of life, because people aren’t available to deliver the amenities — from pizza to lawn care — that we all want, and that a vibrant workforce would provide.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.