ND’s population loss, brain drain, have been reversedFARGO – Jill Wilkey doesn’t have to endure the tedious wisecracks about North Dakota that once were routine when she attends conferences for college placement centers.
FARGO – Jill Wilkey doesn’t have to endure the tedious wisecracks about North Dakota that once were routine when she attends conferences for college placement centers.
“They’re not laughing at us anymore,” said Wilkey, who directs the North Dakota State University Career Center. “They’re not asking us if we ride horses to work. They’re asking about the oil fields.”
It’s as if North Dakota, which fought chronic battles with population stagnation and a youth exodus, has had a makeover.
A case in point: Wilkey recently distributed a clipping from the Wall Street Journal to her staff showing that three North Dakota cities ranked among the top 10 cities for employment.
Bismarck was No. 1, Fargo No. 2 and Grand Forks No. 3, a trifecta.
Just days ago, North Dakota was declared the state with the fastest population growth rate for the year, reaching 699,629, a record.
How different the picture appeared a decade ago, when North Dakota was hemorrhaging young people and population stagnation seemed normal.
During the 1990s, North Dakota lost more than 24,000 20- to 34-year-olds, an age segment comprising the prime childbearing years, as her sons and daughters left for brighter futures in other places.
More grim news. The state’s population dropped 1.2 percent between 2000 and 2001 – and demographers predicted the state would keep losing young people.
North Dakota seemed to be slowly dying.
A gathering sense of gloom settled over the state, a mood captured by a special series that ran in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in December 2002 called “Saving North Dakota.”
A panel of young people who gathered to brainstorm solutions said the state had to do a better job selling its virtues and needed a “collective boost of self-esteem.”
The turnaround in North Dakota since then has been dramatic, thanks in large part to soaring farm commodity prices and oil and gas production.
Starting a few years ago, North Dakota became a people magnet.
The population increased 6.6 percent between the 2000 census and the estimate for 2011, reaching 683,932 people. That broke North Dakota’s previous population peak, 680,845 – a mark set eight decades earlier, in 1930.
Driving that population growth were impressive income gains, largely flowing from energy and farm commodities.
North Dakota’s annual per-capita income jumped 86.4 percent from 2000, when it was $25,592, to 2011, when it reached $47,236, well above the national average.
The state’s income ranking during that period shot from 38th to ninth.
The big changes became noticeable in 2006 for Richard Rathge, a demographer at North Dakota State University who has charted the state’s trends since the 1980s.
The numbers appearing on his computer screen in recent years have given him a case of data whiplash.
“If someone had talked to me in say, 2005, I would have said, ‘Where are you coming from?’ This is crazy stuff.”
North Dakota’s chronic outmigration has turned around, he said, and even the “brain drain” the state suffered from losing its educated young people has reversed.
“We are indeed making progress,” Rathge said, adding that the state’s education attainment levels are going up.
The number of nonfarm jobs in North Dakota grew 27.6 percent from 2002 to 2012, to 428,100, a gain of 92,600 jobs for the decade.
People flocked to the state to fill those jobs. The influx has been especially dramatic in the last couple of years.
In 2010, North Dakota’s net migration was a gain of 32,216; in 2011, the gain was 30,100.
A bit of perspective for that two-year gain of 62,316 people in search of a better future:
During the 1990s – a much better time in North Dakota than the grim 1980s – the state’s population wouldn’t have achieved its slight population gain without the arrival of 6,478 foreign immigrants over the decade.
Birth rates, which have been falling nationally, started increasing in North Dakota in 2002 and have continued to increase. Births easily outnumber deaths, producing what demographers call a natural increase.
In 2011, for instance, the average day in North Dakota saw 25 births and 16 deaths.
“It’s migration that’s having the big consequence on population change,” Rathge said. “That’s the big story – we’re bringing in lots of folks.”
Not everything is rosy
A few qualifications are in order when considering North Dakota’s newfound prosperity and population gains.
Although wages have risen statewide – North Dakota’s average annual wage rose 41.2 percent, to $38,870, from 2001 to 2011 – the most dramatic increases tend to be concentrated.
Geographically, much of the new wealth flows from 17 oil- and gas-producing counties in the west, especially nine key counties in the booming Bakken Formation.
From 2000 to 2010, 11 of North Dakota’s 53 counties grew; most gains came in the last few years with the oil boom in the west.
Over a longer time horizon, the population trends are more sobering.
Half of North Dakota’s counties have declined every decade since the 1940s, and three-fourths have declined in five of the past seven decades.
“That’s the context,” Rathge said. “There’s still an important message out there that policymakers need to understand.”
Also, rents and other living costs have skyrocketed in the Oil Patch, squeezing pensioners and workers in the services and public sectors, where paychecks don’t match those in the oil fields.
Most of the population growth, besides what’s occurring in the Oil Patch, is concentrated in urban centers, such as Fargo-West Fargo, Bismarck-Mandan and Minot.
Many rural communities, despite good economic times on the farm, continue to dwindle. Young people move away, leaving a shrinking population that is aging.
“The ag economy has been divorced from the rural economy for quite some time,” said Curt Stofferahn, a sociology professor at the University of North Dakota.
Farms have gotten larger, and big farmers often drive past smaller communities to the regional trading centers to buy their supplies and farming inputs, such as seed and fertilizer.
“Agriculture does not support rural communities anymore,” Stofferahn said, adding that the trends have been at work for decades, with nothing on the horizon to alter them.
More germane to the state’s traditional challenge in keeping its young people are the career opportunities for skilled and educated workers.
The state has demonstrated real progress on that front, said Maren Daly, executive director of Job Service North Dakota.
Figures from 2005, the year the oil boom’s effects became dramatically apparent, until 2011 show an increase in managerial, technical and professional job categories that typically go to college graduates.
That period saw the creation of almost 15,000 new jobs in half a dozen employment categories including computing, engineering and architecture, business and financial operations, sciences and health care practitioners and support positions.
“You’re going to see a lot more in the managerial and a lot more in the professions, such as engineers,” Daly said.
Wilkey, the NDSU Career Center director, agrees that the employment picture has brightened.
“Anecdotally, I think it is a better state for college graduates than it was, say, 15 years ago,” she said.
NDSU tracks placement of graduates who respond to a survey. Among graduates originally from North Dakota, an estimated 70 percent are retained each year.
Job growth has been across many sectors because of the state’s workforce and favorable business climate, with regulations and taxes that are not burdensome, she said.
“The oil boom is the tip of the iceberg because it takes so much to support that boom,” she said.
Rathge said North Dakota’s new prosperity is not just a story of the oil boom.
The size of North Dakota’s economy more than doubled between 2001 and 2011, growing 110.9 percent, to $40.3 billion.
Despite the oil boom, agriculture remains a leading industry, comprising 8.4 percent of the economy. The ag sector – $3.4 billion in 2011 – grew an impressive 258 percent over the decade.
But mining, which includes oil and gas, saw even more explosive growth over the decade, 739 percent. The industry totaled $3.1 billion in 2011 and represented 7.8 percent of the state’s economy, up from 2.1 percent in 2001.
Growth from strong commodity prices and energy development is rippling through the state’s economy, said David Flynn, an economist at the University of North Dakota.
“So you have growth sectors that are forming a bedrock for further economic deepening in North Dakota,” he said.
In fact, Flynn said, North Dakota’s growth probably would have been even more rapid if the cloud of uncertainty from gridlock in Washington hadn’t slowed business investment.
North Dakota, now the No. 2 petroleum state behind Texas, continues to set new oil and gas production records. Industry experts predict strong production will continue for another three decades or more.
And North Dakota’s population should keep growing robustly. Rathge’s projections call for a population of 841,820 by 2025, an increase of 25 percent from 2010.
“The story now should be saving North Dakota from its success,” Rathge said, noting the strains on affordable housing, public works, public safety and health care that come with the boom.
The challenge now for policymakers, he said, is to provide top-notch education, child care and jobs that support families.
“How can we survive this wonderful opportunity that’s been dropped in our lap?”
Cando still struggling
Cando is located in northeastern North Dakota, in what used to be called the Durum Triangle, where durum wheat fields once dominated the landscape.
But a climate shift toward wetter weather moved durum growing to the west and Cando, the seat for Towner County, has struggles common to many farming-dependent communities.
A town of 1,342 in 2002, Cando served as a focal point in The Forum’s “Saving North Dakota” series that year.
It was struggling with dwindling school enrollment and the loss of a major employer, a farm machinery manufacturer that left 70 people without jobs when it folded.
The owner of the Towner County Record Herald, who has since retired, compared the plant closing to a death in the family.
Brittney Thomas, now the editor of the Record Herald, was one of a class of 19 when she graduated from the high school in Cando in 2010.
In recent years the Cando school has combined with those in nearby Bisbee and Egeland, which closed their schools and bus their students to Cando.
In the last 10 years, the Audi Theater has gone from nightly screenings to movies on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.
The bowling alley has irregular hours, and the youth center on Main Street has closed and remains vacant.
“I think we could use some things to do around town,” Thomas said. “There’s really not much for kids to do anymore, and that’s kind of sad.”
But a new coffee shop, the Cool Bean, has opened, and the hardware store and drug store stayed open through ownership changes, she said.
The building that once housed the farm machinery manufacturer now is occupied by a company that runs a feed mill.
Last year, Cando’s population was estimated at 1,124, down 118 from the 2000 census count.
But the oil boom now showing signs of spreading beyond the Bakken Formation is trickling into Towner County.
Some oil exploration has occurred in the county. “They’re finding oil around here,” Thomas said, although no oil and gas is being produced.
In the meantime, she estimates 30 people who work in the Oil Patch have moved to Cando or surrounding areas, a three-hour commute to boom towns Williston or Tioga.
“I can see it being bad and I can see it being good,” Thomas said, speculating about what petroleum development, if it ever comes, could mean for struggling Cando.
“Williston has gotten ridiculous,” she said. “I would hope it doesn’t get like that.”