Saturday, December 06, 2008

Labor Shortage North Dakota

A reminder that economic downturns are just as geographically uneven as upturns:

As it happens, one of the state’s biggest worries right now is precisely the reverse of most other states: North Dakota has about 13,000 unfilled jobs and is struggling to find people to take them.

“We could use more people with skills for some of these jobs,” Marty Aas, who leads the Fargo branch of the state’s Job Service North Dakota, said as his offices — where the unemployed might come for help — sat quiet and nearly empty. State employees outnumbered the six clients on a recent afternoon. (Mr. Aas insisted that such a slow afternoon was rare.)

State officials and private companies have begun looking elsewhere to recruit workers, including traveling in October to Michigan, where tens of thousands of workers have been laid off, and, this month, holding an “online job fair,” anything to lure people to a place that is, at least for now, removed from the deep financial dismay — if also just plain removed.

“Our problem is that everybody thinks that it’s a cold, miserable place to live,” said Bob Stenehjem, a Republican and the State Senate’s majority leader. “They’re wrong, of course. But North Dakota is a pretty well-kept secret.”

With 635,867 residents, North Dakota is among the least populous states, and, in the past few years, more people have moved away, census figures show, than have moved here.

Katie Hasbargen, a spokeswoman for Microsoft’s Fargo campus, which is in the middle of a $70 million or so building expansion and is, even now, looking for a few additions to its work force (of more than 1,500), said false perceptions of the state are the problem when it comes to recruiting workers. “The movie,” Ms. Hasbargen said, referring to the 1996 Coen brothers’ film that bears this city’s name, “didn’t do us a lot of favors.”

On a recent evening, as the night shift arrived at DMI Industries, where 383 workers (an all-time high) weld gigantic towers for wind turbines and where a $20 million expansion is under way, Phillip Christiansen, the general manager, wandered the plant, noting those who had been recruited from elsewhere — three from Michigan not long ago, another from Louisiana. “It’s very competitive around here trying to find people,” he said. “In this environment, it’s a little hard.”

I quoted a lengthy passage in order to demonstrate the proximity problem as it relates to sense of place. Information is easy to impart. Anyone can crunch the rankings: Climate data, unemployment rate, job creation, average salary, and tax regime. Numbers abound. But do they drive migration?

The North Dakota story (see Atlantic Canada for another example) suggests otherwise. Unemployed in Flint reads the NYT article, but the movie "Fargo" is what is playing in her head. Intimate knowledge is extremely difficult to communicate. Thus workers tough it out in Michigan instead of heading to opportunity in North Dakota. Even the young and most geographically mobile follow this pattern. Relocation is often to the next city or state over from where they grew up. As for the long distance treks to the latest boomtown, that is more mythology than reality. If you can make it here, then you can make it anywhere: The American Dream.

Then there is path dependency. Social networks as a predictor of migration are growing in significance. You might call it a "mobility apprenticeship." You learn about a new place from someone you trust and then take the relocation risk. But places such as North Dakota or Pittsburgh aren't part of these talent circles, save when expatriates bump up against talent from somplace else in Big City. The result is anxiety about brain drain or "brain boomerang".

Social media can solve this problem. The technology already exists, along with the cultural sophistication to put it use. But if the economy gets bad enough, we won't need these tools:

When work was plentiful at home, it was often a tough sell to get lawyers to move halfway around the world. But since the financial unraveling in September, that’s all changed. In the last two months, recruiters in Hong Kong and Dubai say they’ve seen a record number of New York résumés from candidates looking for law-firm or in-house legal work overseas.

Times are tough and pioneers are finding work in new places, setting the stage for a new round of network migration. This slump is Pittsburgh's big chance. Pittsburgh represents the domestic economic frontier. What other cities could emerge as a surprise hotspot like Minneapolis and Austin did in the early 1990s?

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