North Dakota trolls for Minnesota workers

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 30, 2011 - 12:39 PM

With a booming economy, the lowest unemployment rate in the nation and 17,000 job openings, our neighbor lacks one thing -- potential employees.

When it comes to employment, North Dakota has a problem most states would love to have.

It already has jobs. Now it just needs workers.

Booming North Dakota has 17,000 job openings, but with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, the state finds itself reaching beyond its borders to expand its workforce.

First stop -- Minnesota.

North Dakota's governor and commerce and tax commissioners, among other state officials, recently launched a full-scale recruiting mission in the North Star state. They are seeking engineers, electricians, IT pros, machine operators, health care experts and anyone else who wants a job, so long as they don't mind relocating.

"We are in such a wonderful position over here right now," said North Dakota Commerce Commissioner Alan Anderson. "But we have a 3.3 percent unemployment rate. ... So we have to either get some more folks coming back home or get more coming across the state line to share in the opportunities."

In the Twin Cities, North Dakota officials have dined with business leaders and brought in 40 businesses to interview 350 Minnesotans at a job fair in Minneapolis. They also have tapped Minnesota's colleges and universities for hiring leads.

North Dakota needs workers for its booming oil, gas and coal industries in the middle and western parts of the state. The state is the fourth-largest oil producer in the country. Hardware stores, big box retailers and apartments are popping up all over, said Valley City Development Director Jennifer Feist.

But demand for workers crosses multiple industries. Those looking to hire include the Minot Area Development Corp., pork producer Cloverdale Meats and Minnesota Valley Testing Lab in Bismarck, St. Joseph's Hospital in Dickinson and Mercy Medical Center in Williston.

Tapping Minnesota job seekers is smart, because they aren't scared off by brutal winters, Anderson said. North Dakota's ambassadors dangle carrots, emphasizing their state's budget surplus and recent cuts the governor made to personal, corporate and property taxes.

And what do Minnesota officials think of the new recruitment effort?

"We actually consider it a compliment," said Monte Hanson, spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. "One thing we hear over and over from employers is the [solid] quality of the workforce here. They say our workers have a great work ethic and are highly educated."

Minnesota ranks second in the nation for high school graduates and 11th in the number of adults with college degrees. Hanson said some Minnesotans will defect to North Dakota for jobs.

"We sort of see this as a temporary thing and that more people will return to Minnesota as more jobs become available here," he said. Still, the scope of need in North Dakota seems huge.

Closer to the Minnesota-North Dakota border, Microsoft's large field office in Fargo, Deere & Co. in Valley City, Bobcat, Great River Energy, Moore Engineering in West Fargo, and a host of county governments say they need workers and hope to find help in Minnesota.

Microsoft spokeswoman Katie Hasbargen was part of the Fargo team that came to Edina a few weeks ago to talk techies into taking jobs and making the move. More than 60 tech-savvy individuals showed up with résumés in hand.

"We talked all about our North Dakota campus and the roles we have available and about Fargo as a community," she said.

Ken Behrendt, president of Eagle Creek Software in Minnetonka, is a self-described "big fan of North Dakota" and is building a new 20,000-square-foot technology project center in Valley City. The effort should double the workforce to about 150 by 2013. About 35 percent of the new workers will come from Minnesota, he said.

"We are recruiting Generation Y employees" who have strong tech skills but not necessarily the baggage of houses or large families, he said. Full benefits and salaries of $36,000 to $60,000 are available for the taking. But recruiting isn't a slam dunk.

"The problem is when you say 'North Dakota,' your mind goes blank. Most people don't know what Williston or Valley City, North Dakota, means or looks like," Behrendt said.

Matt Fraser recently made the move to Valley City after Eagle Creek found his résumé online and called him in September.

Contacted out of the blue

"They contacted me out of the blue. And within a week it was bam, bam, bam, and I had a job. Whereas I had been looking in Minnesota all summer," said Fraser, who graduated a year ago with a computer science degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth.

In Minnesota, the most he was able to find was a $14-an-hour job last summer managing a candy store in Crosslake. Now he is making more than $40,000 a year with benefits. "I love it,'' he said "It's been great so far."

Minnesota officials understand North Dakota's job dilemma but say they won't appreciate any push to get local companies to relocate or expand there. Minnesota wants those economic benefits for itself, Hanson said.

Ruffled feathers aside, Minnesota officials understand why the Peace Garden State is poaching in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Minnesota is home to 20 Fortune 500 companies such as retailers Target and Best Buy, such manufacturers as 3M and Donaldson Co., financial firms like U.S. Bancorp and Ameriprise, and such agricultural giants as Hormel, Land O Lakes and Cargill.

On the downside, Minnesota has 6.5 percent unemployment and 194,000 people still anxiously seeking work.

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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