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ND struggles to fill some state jobs

BISMARCK -- With long hours, a high cost of living and few housing choices, the North Dakota Highway Patrol struggles to get applicants to accept job offers around the Oil Patch.

And now the Highway Patrol has to fill 15 open slots made available by the state Legislature.

Capt. Lori Malafa, administration services commander for the patrol, said it's a guess how many of the 34 applicants will make it through the six-month academy beginning in January and take one of the jobs.

"They may go through the whole process and be offered a job and may not like the location and say no," she said. "We have a really good pool of applicants and very good quality candidates. It'll come down to whether they accept the position."

She said hopefully, with so much work required of the applicants, they have accepted the idea of working in the Oil Patch. But the agency has been turned down before.

The Highway Patrol is one of many state agencies working to fill a total of 141 new state positions approved by the Legislature.

Laurie Sterioti Hammeren, director of North Dakota Human Resource Management Services, which helps state agencies hire employees, said filling the roles can be difficult and is largely dependent on what positions are being filled.

"The difficulty ebbs and flows, it's a volatile market," she said. "It all depends on the number of vacancies and where people are willing to locate, the market conditions and other factors."

She said it's difficult to find applicants willing to live in the Oil Patch and be able to offer them salaries competitive with private companies.

"If someone can go across the street and make more than a state job, it's kind of a no-brainer," she said.

In addition to the new hires, the state has to keep up with turnover.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, since August 2012 the state has hired 692 employees while 735 left their positions. In July, 71 employees left their jobs and the state hired 70 new employees.

The 141 new state positions bump the total number of state employees to 11,484.

Most of the positions became available July 1 -- the start of the fiscal year. Many focus on the Oil Patch with oil and gas industry regulators and public safety officials.

Allison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources, said the challenge they continue to face is finding housing for new employees in the Oil Patch.

Keeping salaries competitive is also stressed by the department.

"A lot of companies in the west can lose a lot of employees to oil companies because they can pay better," she said.

She said the Oil and Gas Division hired all five emergency positions the Legislature created for the Bismarck office prior to the new biennium taking effect.

Since July 1, the department has hired two of the remaining 17 positions -- a library technician in Grand Forks and an accounting budget specialist in Bismarck.

Nine positions are listed on the department's website for the offices in Bismarck, Williston, Minot and Dickinson.

An engineering technician in Dickinson is being sought to conduct field inspections of oil and gas production and related sites. Depending on qualifications, the position can make between $39,000 and $51,000.

The Department of Transportation was given 16 new positions for the 2013-15 biennium.

Of the 16 new positions, Jamie Olson, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said three have been filled, seven are in the process of being screened and six are still being classified and will be posted soon.

Peggy Anderson, a spokeswoman for the department, said it will be more challenging to fill the new positions in the Williston area, but the department is confident the positions in its central Bismarck office will be filled in the near future.

But unlike many state agencies, the Highway Patrol won't be able to see its new positions filled immediately with training until early next summer.

The Highway Patrol has been able to increase the new recruits' wages during training, but hasn't been able to lock in extra funding to increase their full-time salaries.

And as training takes place, Malafa said the patrol will offer senior troopers the ability to transfer to another post around the state, which may create more vacancies around the Oil Patch.

But even as some struggle to move into the Oil Patch for non-oil-related positions, they find a way to stay, Malafa said.

"Some know they may take a job they don't want to take forever," Malafa said. "They will know later on in their careers they'll have the opportunity to move. Some decide to stay once they have settled down with a family."

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.