NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — In Search Of The Phantom Workforce

The governor and the Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce are spending $4,000 this month to ask 1,000 businesses what they need to grow and prosper. I wish they’d talked to me first. I know they’re awfully keen to pinch those budgetary pennies. I’d have been happy to tell them for the price of a cup of coffee:

People. North Dakota needs people. Lots of people. Without them, the booming growth curve stalls.

Like their neighbors in Minnesota, North Dakota businesses are feeling the squeeze big time … not for lack of ideas, grit or even sometimes money, but the aching shortage of humans to do actual work. North Dakota Job Service lists 14,400 spots that are wide-open. The director estimates the actual number is significantly larger, since many openings don’t ever make it to the statewide employment listings. Not only that: Economic developers expect the need to not only persist but double in just a few years.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Labor Department confirms the whole nation is hurting for help. For the first time in the history of statistics, it reports more job openings nationwide than there are unemployed workers to fill them.

What a shortsighted time to close the doors to eager immigrants!

Gov. Doug Burgum cites North Dakota’s undersized workforce as its single biggest barrier to economic growth. “We need a new way of finding solutions to this critical challenge,” he’s told the media. He touts the employer survey as a “unique approach” based on “priorities derived from detailed data and evidence-based research.”

Don’t expect any stunning revelations. The survey — take it yourself at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/NDWF2018Survey —will undoubtedly turn up the kind of so-called “insights” that have been ridiculously obvious since at least the 1990s. Back then, economic development professionals were already predicting a shortage of the kind of smart, knowledgeable workers who are in short supply today … as well as a drought of workers with lower levels of skills needed to keep the wheels of our daily lives turning.

We desperately need more warm bodies here in the underpopulated heart of America. “Help wanted” pleas ring out from the Bakken to the Minnesota border — and not only in the slightly urban oases out here on the prairie. A good share issue out in the vast lands dismissed just 25 years ago as desolate Buffalo Commons. Census figures celebrate growth in the largest communities, but their explosive growth is offset by the sobering rest of the story — the rest of the state, where the population is draining away or, at best, static. Plenty of ideas have been sparked to bring life back to the withering. What they need now are willing hands to put to work. Ironically, as small towns shrink, their need for solutions grows — right along with the aching demand for living, breathing humans to make them happen.

Bitter but true: There just aren’t enough home-grown humans here to fill the roaring demand. Isn’t it weird, then, that so many on the pro-business, pro-growth side of the aisle are trying so hard to keep willing — no, desperately eager — workers out?

True, we already recognize some partial solutions. We can ramp up vocational and professional training, targeting the industries starving for that talent. Economic developers and educators have been recommending that since at least the early 1990s. Are we there yet?

But in a labor market as tight as today’s — 2.6 percent unemployment in North Dakota, 3 percent in Minnesota — retraining less-skilled workers, at best, pushes the shortage downward, where it’s already acute. Newly trained and promoted employees leave behind the less well-paid slots where we found them. Those empty positions, not as glamorous but equally essential in their way — will need to be filled, too.

We need workers of all skill levels, top to bottom. Service businesses, retail, food service, manufacturing, farming … they need people, too. If we can’t grow enough of our own, transplants are the only alternative.

Growing our own — well, that’s a long-term strategy. The drift of young Dakotans from their rural roots toward brighter lights is a family tradition. Better opportunities and more attractive communities can bring some of them back. Witness the holiday job fairs that economic developers have been sponsoring over the past 20 years: Snag their attention when they come home from the Big City to visit the folks at Christmas. But success comes by the dozens. Employers are hungry for thousands.

What’s the alternative? Transplants. The governor suggests looking beyond our borders. Perhaps North Dakota can seduce talent from other corners of the U.S. Artisan breweries, hip boutiques and downtown lofts may appeal to some for whom we’re competing. Two challenges make their large-scale recruitment a long shot. The rest of America is on the hunt for those same promising imports. And the good life on the prairie, no matter how chill, is never going to fully mask the bitter pill in the booming banquet of semi-urban goodies: Winter.

But, nevertheless, there’s hope in sight. Let’s look to history, for we’ve been in this spot before.

Hopeful humans follow the scent of opportunity from distant, less blessed shores. They’re the very folks whom the current regime is working so ferociously to drive away.

Immigrants are the heroes of our nation’s past. Each emerging labor gap — the factories, the fields, the intercontinental railroads – has been filled by waves of newcomers in search of better lives. Seldom greeted with open arms, often reviled by those who got here first, we’ve persisted to build the world’s greatest economy.

Yes, “we.” You and I are here today thanks to an endless supply of forebears who left home in search of nothing more than an opportunity to work hard and raise their kids in safety. But talk about shooting yourself in the foot! On the one hand, ICE agents round up, detain and deport undocumented workers right out of the fields and off the packing plant floor. They deport longtime productive citizens and strive to deny the DREAMers, prime young adults who were brought here as children. They’re trying to shrink the numbers of legal immigrants. They’re whipping up blind nationalistic fervor that blames outsiders for all of America’s largely imagined ills.

And then our leaders claim to be shocked — shocked! — by the desperate shortage of labor that’s crippling sectors of our economy.

Immigrants now, as ever, are willing to start at the bottom. Historically, they’ve labored in sweatshops, cleaned houses, worked the line in canneries, hoed beets, slaughtered hogs and built the great railroads. When old Americans didn’t want the work, new Americans did — and do.

America has always counted on the people whom the Statue of Liberty beckons to do the hard work of building a successful nation. Those tired, those poor, those huddled masses yearning to breathe free have bent to the task to earn their keep and support their families. Let’s not kid ourselves: Virtually all of us come from that same tradition. All of my own great-grandparents, less one, crossed borders to get here. Most of them did it freely, since passports and border control were rare before World War I.

All of my great-greats came from elsewhere — Norway, Germany and Canada — with one exception. My maternal grandfather boarded a Norwegian freighter alone at 14 and disembarked in Canada, then walked south along the Red River. In today’s heated parlance, Grandpa was an undocumented, unaccompanied minor.

Talk to some of the new Americans around us now … and listen closely. You’ll hear gratitude for the land of the free, where they can live in peace, educate their kids and labor as hard as humanly possible to build new, safe, productive lives. As immigrants have always been, they’re willing to start with the kinds of lowly tasks that homegrown incumbents often view with disdain.

The governor’s workforce survey will undoubtedly come up with laser-sharp needs and result in erudite recommendations. Yes, let’s empower today’s underemployed North Dakotans and Minnesotans. Let’s get them the education and training they need. (Sorry to ruin the suspense. That’s guaranteed to be the big takeaway.)

But, at the same time, let’s open our doors wide to ambitious, eager transplants who are actually anxious to join us. Let’s welcome them. Let’s offer them a productive path to citizenship, just as our own families achieved not all that long ago.

They’re longing for a fresh start on the ground floor. The jobs are waiting. Why not let them?

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Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Rather than being "unheralded," you might call Nancy Edmonds Hanson "reforumed." The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead hired her at 17, “launching the shyest teenager in all of darkest North Dakota on nearly 50 years of writing adventures.” She covered news and features there and wrote columns for most of the next 10 years. Since then, she's written, edited, advised, marketed and taught all over the place. Her work has turned up in North Dakota Horizons and many other magazines over the years, along with bookstores, where her guide to freelance writing was a long-term best-seller (among the fraction of bookbuyers who want to write); the regional book publishing and distribution business; public television; countless anonymous advertising and public relations venues, and — for nearly 25 years — in the classrooms of Minnesota State University Moorhead's School of Communications and Journalism. She's also a bona fide Photoshop wizard, has a photographer husband and chef daughter and is crazy about cats.

4 thoughts on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — In Search Of The Phantom Workforce”

  1. I have no problem with people wanting and willing to do an honest days work. I have worked with immigrants, people from other parts of this country and “undocumented” women and men. I wish more of the locals would welcome others to share the prairie.

  2. You are so right about the immigrants, Even the dumbest person in the state of ND should be able to see this.

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