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ND not immune from job struggles

Patrick Case relocated to Northwood, N.D., for job security 13 months ago after being laid off from his job as a used car lot manager. A month ago he and 25 co-workers were laid off at Northwood Mills, where he'd been employed since September

Patrick Case decided to return to his native North Dakota after he was laid off from his job as a used car lot manager in Florida 13 months ago.

"The housing boom was going south, which affected the car business, which cost me my job," he said. "Ultimately, I had to sell my house and the whole nine yards."

He returned to the community of Northwood, where his father lived.

"My research showed that North Dakota hadn't been hit yet by the bad economy," Case said. "I figured I could find gainful employment here."

He found it in September at Northwood Mills, a canola-crushing plant. It lasted a little more than three months.

A month ago, Case and 25 co-workers were laid off when the Northwood plant was shut down. The faltering economy cut into the demand for petroleum products, which had a domino effect on the market for oilseeds used for biodiesel.

Job Service North Dakota reported 6,646 initial unemployment claims statewide in January, a 44 percent increase from January 2008.

The Grand Forks office reported a more dramatic increase, from 315 unemployment filings in January 2008 to 499 in January this year, a 58 percent hike.

"I can't say whether that's indicative of the national downturn headed our way," said Darren Brostrom, the state director of unemployment insurance. "There could be a large percentage that is off for a short furlough. Who make up that 184 jump in claims would tell more of a story than the number itself. But 184 is a significant increase."

Major Grand Forks employers LM Glasfiber and Cirrus Design are among the local companies with layoffs, some temporary. Manufacturing jobs, such as those offered by LM Glasfiber and Cirrus, have been hardest hit nationally because of a drop in the demand for their products. North Dakota has 900 fewer manufacturing jobs than a year ago, based on December statistics.

Altru Health System in Grand Forks announced a hiring freeze and executive pay cuts. National firms with local units such as Macy's also have cut jobs.

Brostrom saw the unemployment shift begin in late summer, with a more dramatic turn starting in November.

"My nine years in this job have shown a lot more ups than downs," he said. "But the biggest down period I've seen in those nine years has been in the last two to three months."

The Grand Forks area still has 1,000 jobs listed but the overwhelming majority are part-time or low-paying service positions.

Still, even with the recent job losses, employment numbers are high historically. December figures showed North Dakota had 2,000 more workers than 12 months ago. Only Wyoming had a lower unemployment rate.

"When you compare us to other states, we're in very good shape," Brostrom said. "It's just that we've gone from a great situation where employers were looking for workers in almost every field. So this is a drastic change."

Case, as he did 13 months ago, is shifting career gears. He's taking advantage of a Job Service retraining program to become an over-the-road truck driver, with plans to start the six-week course in March.

"I did a lot of research online about jobs," Case said. "Everywhere I looked, the openings were for three jobs -- doctors, teachers and truck drivers. I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon, but I figured Job Service wouldn't pay for my education for that."

Case figures to have his license before an April 21 job fair in Grand Forks.

"Three years in a row, we've had a record number of employers attend our job fair," said Keith Reitmeier, the Job Service regional manager in Grand Forks. "This year, we think there will be a record number of jobseekers."

Job Service offers such services as job interview skills and help with drawing up a resume and with applying for jobs online. Computer training also is available.

Case retired as a chief petty officer after 22 years in the Navy before he became a car sales manager.

"I'm 49 years old and never, ever, in my life have I collected unemployment before," he said. "But you have to do what you have to do."