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Published July 14, 2014, 08:49 AM

Targeted immigration seen by some as solution to ND’s worker shortage

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - As a worker shortage continues to loom over North Dakota, some economic developers recommend the gap be filled with individuals not only from other states but from abroad.

By: Brandi Jewett , Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - As a worker shortage continues to loom over North Dakota, some economic developers recommend the gap be filled with individuals not only from other states but from abroad.

Recruiting from other countries would require changes to national immigration policies in order to meet the demand proponents say, but the move could bring skilled workers the area needs.

“At the end of the day, we need more people,” said Klaus Thiessen, president and CEO of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

Thiessen works with a larger group called the Valley Prosperity Partnership — group of regional business and education leaders focused on finding economic development opportunities in the Red River Valley.

In the group’s recently released Action Agenda 2014-2019 report, consultants recommend businesses, legislators and others consider exploring, among other options, the creation of a targeted immigration program.

The goal of such a program would be to recruit workers with specific skill sets such as doctors, welders or truck drivers to the state or region.

“That was something I suggested we as a small state look at,” Thiessen said. “Could we be viewed as a pilot project to see how it could be worked out?”

While the EDC and Valley Prosperity Partnership are not officially pursuing the program’s creation, the partnership notes stakeholders from the Red River Valley area are getting involved in the issue at a national level.

Filling the gap

Moving forward with such an initiative would require business support to gain momentum at a state and eventually national level with lawmakers, according to Thiessen.

“Business leaders across the country are mobilizing to promote immigration reform that would meet the U.S. demand for legal foreign-born workers,” the Action Agenda says.

From the valley to the oil patch, unemployment rates remain low and businesses are searching for workers to fill positions. According to the latest U.S. Department of Labor reports, North Dakota’s unemployment rate was 2.6 percent in May, the lowest in the country. The Grand Forks metro area’s unemployment rate was 3.2 percent while the Fargo metro area’s was 2.5 percent.

North Dakota’s worker shortage isn’t limited to just one industry, according to Tom Fetsch, a business consultant with Job Service North Dakota.

Across the board from health care to construction to retail, employers are in need of workers.

“You name it,” Fetsch said about the variety of job openings. “The skilled positions are the ones that are more in demand but there’s still demand for a general laborer.”

About 2,800 job openings were listed on Job Service’s website for Grand Forks, Nelson, Pembina and Walsh counties — a 10 percent increase from the prior year.

Successful neighbor

When it comes to finding a targeted immigration program to emulate, Thiessen said the state only needs to look right across its northern border.

“Manitoba has one of the most internationally successful targeted immigration programs,” he said.

Through the Manitoba Provincial Nominee Program, thousands of individuals are recruited based on labor market needs and thousands more are matched with employers with skill shortages once they arrive in Manitoba, according to a program spokesperson.

The program has seen an 87 percent retention rate, resulting in nearly 140,000 permanent residents for the province since 1999.

Of that total, nearly 30,000 have settled in rural areas, according to a report from the office of the minister of immigration and multiculturalism.

While Thiessen said a potential targeted immigration pilot program in North Dakota would attempt to recruit talent from similar cultures and climates, Manitoba officials said they’ve had no trouble attracting newcomers from warmer regions.

The report shows a majority of the residents come from Asia and the Pacific region.