More Jobs Than Workers

IMG_1242_exploreplateNorth Dakota has a problem that every other state would give their proverbial left arms to acquire: for at least the past four years, the Peace Garden State (one of our favorite state nicknames) has been creating far more jobs than it has available workers.

The Bakken shale-oil boom has brought thousands of new jobs and billions of dollars in revenue to ND, driving the state’s unemployment rate down to a U.S.-leading 2.6 percent, which is probably as close to full employment as any state will ever get. With fracking expected to continue its exponential expansion in ND and state coffers brimming with surplus revenue that can be used to prime other growth sectors, the upward trend in North Dakota no doubt will continue through the end of this decade and beyond.

As we’ve detailed in this space previously, not only is there a critical shortage of workers to fill all the new jobs in ND, there’s also a dearth of housing for the influx of new oilfield hands that are arriving from other states every month.

In 2009, when President Obama visited Elkhart, IN (the biggest U.S. producer of RVs) as unemployment in Elkhart was peaking at nearly 19 percent, we suggested–and we were not joking–that federal stimulus funds be used to purchase the entire RV output of Elkhart so the units could be sent up to ND and used as workforce housing. The president didn’t take us up on this idea, but we think it still may be valid (only now the state can afford to make the RV purchase instead of the feds).

This month, some regional economic development organizations have stepped forward with an interesting idea to address the chronic shortage of workers in North Dakota, which is not limited to the oil industry but cuts across all sectors, including healthcare, construction and retail.

According to a report in Prairie Business, a regional group called the Valley Prosperity Partnership–which promotes growth in the Red River Valley and includes as a member the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.–recently released an Action Agenda 2014-2019 report which urges that North Dakota explore the creation of a “targeted immigration” program.

The goal of a targeted immigration program would be to recruit foreign workers with specific skillsets and match them to jobs that need filling. The Valley Prosperity Partnership cites a program across the border in neighboring Manitoba as an example of how such an international matchmaking effort can succeed.

Through the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program, thousands of individuals are recruited based on labor market needs and thousands more are matched with employers with skill shortages once they arrive in Manitoba, Prairie Business reports. The program reportedly has seen an 87-percent retention rate, resulting in nearly 140,000 new permanent residents for the province since 1999. Of that total, nearly 30,000 have settled in rural areas, according to a report from Canada’s Office of the Minister of Immigration and Multiculturalism.

The ministry report also says Manitoba has had no trouble attracting newcomers from warmer climates, with the majority of the new permanent residents coming from Asia and the Pacific Rim. That’s probably a good thing, because the newbies will have very low expectations (if any) regarding Canada’s chances of reclaiming the Stanley Cup anytime soon, but we digress.

The targeted immigration approach appears to be gaining support in North Dakota. “At the end of the day, we need more people,” Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp., told Prairie Business. “[Targeted immigration] was something I suggested we as a small state look at. Could we be viewed as a pilot project to see how it could be worked out?”

The Grand Forks EDC and Valley Prosperity Partnership are not officially pursuing the program’s creation, but the partnership says stakeholders from the Red River Valley area are getting involved in the issue at a national level.

However, there’s a hurdle, and it’s a really big one: recruiting workers from other countries would require changes to national immigration policies in order to meet the demand. Congress thus far has proven itself unable to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill–one that would expand visas for foreign workers–even in the face of a full-blown humanitarian crisis on the Texas border.

The Valley Prosperity Partnership remains undaunted:

“Business leaders across the country are mobilizing to promote immigration reform that would meet the U.S. demand for legal foreign-born workers,” the group’s Action Agenda says.