Communities rely on local champions to attract workers

Childcare, education and affordability key concerns of recent arrivals

Communities rely on local champions to attract workers
The Orr family takes a break to pose for a photo during a hockey outing at Lions Park in Bismarck on Jan. 12, 2023. From the left Tom, Brekken, Juliette Orr and Matty Orr. The family relocated to North Dakota in August as one of the first families to use the revamped Find the Good Life initiative. (Photo Michael Standaert, North Dakota News Cooperative)

A relaunched effort to attract workers and families to settle in North Dakota aims to rely on local “community champions” to act as connectors between newcomers and local employment.

Gov. Doug Burgum’s proposed funding of $25 million for the Find the Good Life campaign – revamped this past June – would focus on marketing North Dakota’s quality of life and initiatives such as bringing potential residents to communities across the state or helping businesses to entice them.

Job Service North Dakota estimates 40,000 openings in the state with at least 4,300 of those being unfilled health care positions.

For a city like Minot, finding enough workers to meet employer needs is a current challenge. An even bigger one looming down the line makes creating a broader workforce base essential.

An expected Department of Defense base redevelopment project over the coming decade is projected to bring $3.2 billion in construction dollars to the state, and as many as 3,000 workers to upgrade missile silos and B-52 bomber units at Minot Air Force Base.

An influx of workers - teachers, retail, health care, construction - will be needed to cater to arriving military staff and contractors, as well as accompanying family members. Housing availability will also have to expand.

“We’re going to have to be really aggressive in bringing people in and showcasing what’s great about North Dakota and it takes dollars to do that,” Brekka Kramer, CEO of the Minot Area Chamber EDC and a community champion for Minot, said.

Kramer said it might take a lot of hand-holding and connecting people to the right jobs and opportunities. She said that momentum could be made if funding is funneled down to communities that “have the best line of sight” on local needs.

“I think the first community that cracks the code on how we do it, how do we get people here, wins,” Kramer said.

For Travis High, who was the first newcomer attracted to the state under the revamped Find the Good Life 2.0, besides a warm welcome, affordability was the biggest draw.

When High drove from Washington in July, Kramer was able to set up several interviews upon arrival and within a week he had a job offer.

High is happy to be here, he said, and thinks the state doesn’t do enough to show all the positives about living in North Dakota.

“Everyone I talked to said ‘Why would you move to North Dakota?’” High said. “I guess the outside world doesn’t really know what North Dakota has to offer.”

A place people want to be

A baseline of essential amenities that people can rely on like restaurants, retail, and entertainment is important, but communities also need to be thinking about unique quality of life options that can’t be found anywhere else, Brian Ritter, president of the Bismarck Mandan Chamber Economic Development Corporation, said.

“It’s about creating the place where people want to be, about creating a place that people want to work from,” Ritter said.

Florija Naas, a community champion from McVille, said the state needs to prioritize changing its image and dispel the notion that it is always in a deep freeze.

While she hasn’t had anyone referred to her yet through the Find the Good Life pipeline, Naas said there’s certainly a need for healthcare workers as well as retail and service workers in her area.

Having adequate childcare in communities where new workers and families relocate to is “absolutely a factor” Naas said, and added that housing availability is another challenge, particularly in smaller communities.

“You need to have all those pieces in place in order to attract people into your communities to stay,” Naas said.

Matty Orr, a mental health counselor who moved with her family to Bismarck in August, is a boomerang returnee. Born and raised in Devils Lake, she later left and has lived out of state for the past 20 years.

While her husband’s career brought her back to North Dakota, she was aided by representatives in the Find the Good Life campaign who helped identify prospective employers and more.

“The representative knew what places around Bismarck were hiring and I even asked her about – my daughter likes horseback riding – and she was able to give us some places around town that provided that, so anything that would make it easier for us to get settled in faster,” Orr said.

Childcare challenge

Besides marketing the state, Gov. Burgum also recently proposed $76 million in spending to address the childcare crisis across the state. That was a concern for Orr even before moving here.

“I was nervous about that, so one of the first calls I made actually, even before I got a job, was to see if we could get her [youngest daughter] on a waitlist,” Orr said.

Amy Jacobson of progressive communication group Prairie Action ND said that while Gov. Burgum’s proposals on childcare are a step in the right direction, they would not solve the day care crisis unless increasing the wages of childcare workers is fully addressed.

Jacobson estimates it would take a least $150 million, or around double the total of the potential funding, just to address those pay gaps.

Providing paid family leave was another policy Jacobson said could help attract and retain workers, along with providing universal school lunches.

“That’s what makes the slogans into reality, when you invest in real policies,” Jacobson said.

Getting people already in the state who have opted out of the workforce because of pressures related to costs of childcare to return, is another important factor.

“There’s people that can’t go to work because they can’t find childcare, or affordable childcare,” Landis Larson, North Dakota’s AFL-CIO President, said.

Solid educational base

For Frank Matus, who moved to West Fargo in December after spending most of his life living in central New York, finding a quality school system for his son was one main factor in the move.

Matus, director of digital aviation solutions at Thales Aerospace, which was chosen as the systems integrator for North Dakota’s unmanned aerial systems network Vantis in 2021, had frequently traveled to the state before deciding to settle down here.

Facilitators at the Find the Good Life campaign helped ease the transition as the family planned its move, he said.

“They’ve been helpful in providing information about the school districts, what Fargo has to offer in terms of culture and nightlife and real estate and those sorts of things,” Matus said.

“It certainly allows people to feel like they are welcome when they come here and they’re not on their own or stuck inside trying to figure out how to navigate the winter,” he added. “It’s been a good process.”

Matus said he felt North Dakota had not been “as broadly promoted as it should be” and added the big deciding factors for his family were finding a good work-life balance, affordable living, and excellent education opportunities.

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