Federal plans can help with job-recruitment barriers

Mike Moen
Special to Devils Lake Daily Journal

MANDAN, N.D. -- North Dakota has had nearly 18,000 job openings in recent months, with roughly 1,000 in construction.

A labor leader in the trades said federal legislation to boost infrastructure and social programs could help fill open positions now and in the future. From the already approved American Rescue Plan to the current Build Back Better proposal and the separate infrastructure bill, supporters say the investments could pay off in a variety of ways.

Jason Ehlert, president of North Dakota's Building Trades Unions, said there are opportunities to boost recruitment and training that might appeal to younger generations.

North Dakota • 5-yr. annualized GDP growth through Q4 2020: -0.4% (7th lowest) • 5-yr. annualized employment growth through March 2021: -0.6% (15th lowest) • March 2021 unemployment rate: 4.4% (17th lowest) • Poverty rate: 10.6% (17th lowest) Resource extraction is one of the largest industries in North Dakota, and demand for those resources plummeted during the pandemic. Due in part to declining output in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction during the pandemic, which resulted in considerable GDP contraction over the past year, North Dakota's economy contracted at a rate of 0.4% a year over the last half decade. The pandemic also triggered mass job losses in the state. Though North Dakota's unemployment rate of 4.4% is below the 6.0% national rate, it is nearly double what it was this time last year.

"We're trying to make that link between; there is education in construction," Ehlert explained. "You're just not gonna go to work every day, day in and day out, and just be kind of that grunt. There is education involved in the trades."

Specifically, he pointed out they are pursuing grants under the American Rescue Plan that could provide essential training for those hired to work on the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project.

As for plans being debated, the infrastructure bill has bipartisan support, but the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better plan faces pushback from GOP lawmakers and business groups who say it is too costly and could harm the economic rebound from the pandemic.

North Dakota • White unemployment, Q2 2021: 3.4% -- 15th lowest, tied (3.7% Q1 2021) • Overall unemployment, Q2 2021: 4.1% -- 16th lowest, tied (4.6% Q1 2021) • Median household income, white households: $68,431 -- 19th highest • Median household income, all households: $64,577

But Ehlert countered the budget reconciliation package addresses gaps in what he calls "wrap-around services" for industries such as construction. For example, he noted bigger investments in child care could allow more females to enter and stay in the field.

"We still always continue to work from that 7-to-4:30 workday, and if you don't have that child-care option, construction's not gonna be a viable career pathway," Ehlert contended.

The Council, which consists of 15 labor organizations around North Dakota, argued extra federal support could also help recruit within communities of color and reach out to Indigenous populations. Ehlert emphasized focusing on training can set new hires up for long-term success, while reducing safety risks as they start their construction careers.