Help wanted. Everywhere you look across the state you see help wanted signs. With North Dakota’s 66th legislative session beginning this month, the workforce issues we face, especially in western North Dakota, will be a priority. Government is not the only answer to this challenge, but the Legislature and Gov. Burgum will be working for the next 80 days to craft public policy that helps employers and workers.
Despite the fluctuation in oil prices, the demand for qualified workers in western North Dakota continues to hold back economic development. The oil and gas industry in the state has matured. While news reports from the Bakken are far less sensational these days, the need for skilled labor remains strong.
And we are not just talking oil field workers. Recent reports from the North Dakota Job Service are startling. As the population in Williston, Watford City and other areas increased dramatically, the demand for services from housing to restaurants to medicine have also increased. Recent information from Job Service shows a shortage of workers with Commercial Drivers Licenses is around 16,000, one medical facility alone listed a need for 99 nurses and other qualified staff. Construction workers and heavy equipment operators’ jobs openings are in the area of 500.
While many workers continue to rotate in and out of the state for jobs, more and more are looking to bring their families to North Dakota. The housing supply that impacted communities has caught up with the demand, but the growing number of young families are looking a family friendly balance with good schools, churches, family activities, involvement in the community and sports. The “boom” years in the Bakken were not family friendly with workers putting in 60 to 80 hours a week, or more. The jobs open today provide a better balance and an opportunity for spouses and families.
The issues are not just in western North Dakota, we continue to face workforce issues across the state. So, as the Legislature meets in Bismarck what can and should be done? Good public policy based on the proper role of government and provides economic freedom for individuals.
One issue that will be discussed is occupational licensure reform. The governor’s office has already identified this issue, and that is welcome. Occupational licensure is one of those areas where a good idea grows out of control. Regulations to ensure public safety are one thing, but artificial barriers that keep people from being employed simply to protect the status quo cost all of us. Economic freedom and competition will provide more opportunities for workers and more choice for consumers.
When I served in the Legislature, each session we saw efforts to increase licensure requirements to the point that today far too many people are shut out from a career that they want and from opportunity to support themselves and their families.
Job training and workforce development programs, when done right, can also help address many of the job-related issues we face. The University of Mary and our technical colleges are making great efforts in this area and we should be seeing more of this from our entire state-run system as well. Government and business can work together to meet these challenges by understanding their roles in promoting economic freedom for individuals.