Sandstrom: Putting the Bakken back into perspective
“One thing is clear: A lot of people leave. No other state faces the (brain drain) problem to the degree that North Dakota does. There’s nobody that’s worse off than us.”
This was the sentiment of Roger Johnson in 2003. Johnson, who served as the North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner at the time, was just one of many who lamented what seemed to be an irreversible trend: young North Dakotans leaving, never to return to the state. In fact, North Dakota was the only state between 2000 and 2003 to lose population, according to an article printed in USA Today in 2004.
But not anymore.
Today, North Dakota’s population is at the highest level it has ever been, thanks to a vibrant economy and tens of thousands of job openings. These economic opportunities have helped North Dakota earn the top spot on Money
Rates.com’s list of “Best States for Young Adults” for the second year in a row.
“A young adult starting out today would benefit from a place with plenty of opportunity, reasonable living costs and just enough lifestyle amenities to keep things interesting,” wrote Richard Barrington, a senior financial analyst for the website.
In fact, North Dakota even has the highest proportion of adults 18 to 24 than any other state, as many young people return home to North Dakota for jobs or to start their own businesses, while countless others migrate here for a fresh start.
Often, the energy industry and the high wages that come with it are credited for bringing many of these young people here. Many believe all of these jobs require hard labor and may be gone as quickly as they came. This, however, is not true.
While there are many jobs that do entail working long hours in harsh conditions, many more are the long-term professional careers that so many young people once left the state to pursue. These careers require education, training and skills in computers, math, science, economics, engineering, law, and the trades, among others. In addition, they are located statewide, from Williston to Fargo and Dickinson to Grand Forks and beyond.
In Grand Forks, engineering firms like AE2S and architecture firms like JLG Architects are growing and hiring as they work to meet the needs and demands of activity in the west. In Fargo, manufacturers like True North Steel and technology companies like Pedigree technologies have grown significantly as they develop the products and software needed in the oil and gas industry. And, just as these companies provide products and services to the oil industry, countless others provide accounting, communications, legal and other support to these growing businesses.
While many view these opportunities for growth as a good thing, there are some who ask, “What about the quality of life? What about our changing towns?”
Surely our rapid growth has come with its challenges, and all too often we become nostalgic for the way it used to be—when we knew nearly everyone we met walking down the street, and how we never had to wait in lines at the grocery store or to be seated at a restaurant. Even I can admit I’ve become nostalgic when I return home to New Town and the outer edges of town seem more and more unfamiliar each time because of the rapid growth.
Yet, I was recently reminded by Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley that it is all about perspective.
Wrigley was keynote speaker at the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation’s Annual Dinner, and he spoke of the transformation we have seen in North Dakota over the past decade, and the nostalgia many feel when looking back. “But,” he said, reminding us that we have come from decades of decline to a new era of prosperity, “You can’t have it both ways. There is nothing nostalgic about our small towns blowing away and our schools closing.”
Yes, we may not know everyone we meet when we walk down the street, but we forget that for many years in some of our shrinking rural towns, we may not have even met a single person. Yes, we may have to wait in line in a grocery store or restaurant from time to time, but we forget that many grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses were closing because there were far too few customers to even form a single line.
Today there are more people in these communities than ever before, and we’ve watched as communities large and small have grown, adding new restaurants, retail stores, and venues that will provide the amenities, entertainment and services for which so many young people once left North Dakota. One person working to provide those amentities is Marcus Jundt, an entrepreneur and one of the original investors of Caribou Coffee. Three years ago, he moved from Minneapolis to Williston, calling the small city “the most exciting place in America” outside of perhaps Silicon Valley. In an interview on CNBC, Jundt said “I simply concluded this: I saw the greatest boom during my lifetime ... and I didn’t want to be 80 years old and look back at my life and say, ‘I missed the neatest thing that has ever occurred in my life.’”
Jundt compared oil development in western North Dakota to the California Gold Rush of 1849. Gold Rush “boomtowns” of that time, namely San Francisco, have since grown and evolved to become the cradle of America’s technological sector. With innovative young people and entrepreneurs entering the state, there is no reason to believe North Dakota cannot build the same kind of future if it so chooses.
The reversal in North Dakota’s population trends cannot be attributed to only one factor or one industry. Rather, it is the result of a constantly growing and diversifying economy where each of our growing sectors — agriculture, energy, technology, manufacturing, etc. — rely on and augment one another. This has led to an era of entrepreneurialism that likely has not been seen in the state. “There is so much energy, (and) there’s so much activity,” Jundt said. “This truly is an exciting place. ... Here, every industry is a growth business.”
This kind of excitement has attracted people from across America, and if we choose to harness it, we can make North Dakota a place where young people continue to want to live, work and raise their families. And, if you don’t want to meet any more strangers walking down the street, stop and introduce yourself. It could be a young person who, given the opportunity, will become an active citizen and leader in the community, helping drive it and our state toward continued growth and an even better quality of life than we possibly could have imagined.
Tessa Sandstrom is the communications manager for the North Dakota Petroleum Council.