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In May, North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford spoke in Grand Forks, N.D., at the Partnership Summit on "Energizing North Dakota’s Future." IMAGE: North Dakota Governor's Office

Now hiring: Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford on ND's workforce shortage

Editor’s note: Brent Sanford, former mayor of Watford City, N.D., is the lieutenant governor of North Dakota. In this Q&A with Prairie Business, he talks in detail about the No.1 problem holding back economic growth in the state: the workforce shortage.

Q. You’ve spent months talking with North Dakota employers about the workforce shortage. What have you learned?

A. The main thing is that it's a statewide issue. It’s not just an Oil Patch issue, it’s not just an energy issue. As the governor and I go across the state, we see that in small towns and large communities alike, everybody talks about the lack of workforce.

Every place we go, employers are saying, “I could do more work and I could take on more opportunities if we just had the bodies to do so.”

Furthermore, it’s not just the fact that western North Dakota is so sparsely populated. We used to think that was the reason why we couldn't get enough workers.

The governor was just at a conference with other Midwestern governors, and this is certainly something that is happening throughout the Midwest.

Q. At the same time, you’ve said, some traits set North Dakota apart. What do you mean?

A. In fact, we should be beating our chests more often, because in North Dakota, these are not low-paying jobs.

The low unemployment rate nationwide doesn't mean that everything is equal between the states. In some of the states, there may be 4 percent or 5 percent unemployment, but the average wage of the job openings might be $10 to $15 an hour.

Not here. Over half of the job openings here are for more than $20 an hour. A quarter of them are more than $30 an hour, and remember: in the western part of the state, the average income now is over $80,000.

These types of incomes are unique to our state. We have to be telling people, “Hey, this is why you need to be here.”

And in addition, we have our high quality of life, we have outdoor recreation, we have vibrant communities. Dickinson, Williston – a generation ago, these communities would not be on Top 10 lists. Now they’re on the lists of, say, Best Cities for Millennials for Opportunities.

That's a great thing.

Here’s something else: The average age in western North Dakota now is in the low 30s. That's quite different than when I was a kid.

Q. What did the Workforce Development Council’s recent survey reveal?

A. The council sent a survey to about 31,000 businesses in the state, and as the news media has reported, about half of the hiring managers who responded said the inability to recruit and retain workers is hindering their company’s growth.

Here’s another interesting result: Somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent of those positions needed for growth require only a high-school or technical-school education. But again, we’re not talking about low-paying jobs.

So what does that mean, when so much of the attention of the state goes to four-year institutions? We’ve had lots of discussion around the state about the lower numbers of college freshmen, for example. Are we missing the chance to build awareness about the many opportunities for students with technical-school skills?

One strategy we’re encouraging is more private sector collaboration, such as when business leaders invest in programs that tell high school and college students about their industries.

The McKenzie County Skills Initiative is doing just that. (Editor’s note: The initiative is a collaborative effort between the McKenzie County School District in Watford City, N.D., Williston State College, the University of Mary at Dickinson, Train ND in Williston and the Small Business Development Center and the Job Development Authority in McKenzie County.)

The goal is to introduce high school kids to employers while the kids are still in the K-12 environment, then have the students team up with the institutions for skills training. There are tech and training facilities that the institutions can use, so the students can train locally even though historically, there haven’t been any higher-education campuses in the city.

It's a great example of local groups taking it upon themselves to solve a problem, while partnering with state programs as well. It's impressive, and it shows that if you bring together the different stakeholders, you can make a difference.

Q. What’s the role of licensing in the workforce situation?

A. The fact is that a lot of our professions have antiquated licensure requirements. These are requirements that have been in place for a long time, and that go back to a time where we weren't growing as fast as a state.

They tend to be a little bit protectionist. And so, as a state, we need to balance the need to keep the quality of a profession high, against the need that we also have of letting people transfer in from other states and be able to practice here.

In a number of instances – including law enforcement, nursing and teaching – it's not that easy to transfer in. For example, when the chief of police in Watford City was hired from out of state, he had to go back to the the law enforcement academy to become licensed. There are things that don't make a lot of sense.

There are nurses who can't transfer in from other states, teachers who can't transfer in. These hurt us in other areas, including our base retention. We get low scores because the spouses of people in the military report that the licensing is really restrictive, so they can’t work.

So that’s a problem.

Importantly, the governor appoints a lot of the members of these licensing boards. So there is something that can be done from the governor's office, and we’re now reviewing the boards and trying to make sure they are effective at accomplishing the basic goal.

Q. How does the ‘Healthy, Vibrant Communities’ pillar of the governor’s Main Street Initiative relate to the workforce shortage?

A. To solve the workforce shortage, we have to remove the obstacles that are keeping workers away from the open jobs – obstacles such lack of awareness of the openings, lack of skills training, licensure issues.

In addition, all of our communities need to be ready to accept more workers. But we don’t always succeed; we in the West, for example, when we were sitting in a period of rapid growth, the workers who came in were living in man camps and often not bringing their families.

They didn't feel like we were accepting of them, and they didn't feel like they wanted to live in  our communities.

So what can our communities do to make sure they are open and exciting and improving the quality of life? What does your own community look like to someone from the outside? Are there facilities for family recreation activities, and is the coffee shop a welcoming place?

Those can be some soul-searching questions for a small town. But they’re vital for a community’s growth, and that’s why “Healthy, Vibrant Communities,” “A Skilled Workforce” and “Smart, Efficient Infrastructure” are the three legs of the Main Street Initiative stool.

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