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Workforce recruitment campaign aims to fill jobs, show off North Dakota

North Dakotans could afford to show off a little bit more.

At least that’s what those organizing an ad campaign to lure workers to the state say.

“We’ve got to tell a better story,” said Wally Goulet, chairman of the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation. “I don’t think people will ever be boastful, but I think they can show some North Dakota pride.”

State leaders are preparing to roll out an advertising campaign aimed at recruiting and retaining a permanent workforce to fill the state’s thousands of open job positions. The “Find the Good Life in North Dakota” campaign is set to launch next month.

Campaign organizers point to the abundant job opportunities, quality of life and good schools as reasons people should consider moving here.

But the campaign could face a number of challenges, particularly in addressing a broad scope of job openings and how to best persuade people to uproot and move here. And at the same time, those involved with the project acknowledge that they are facing a heightened media interest in the Bakken oil boom and the social effects such as increased crime that have come with it.

Business leaders raising funds for the project say they’re taking a proactive approach to marketing North Dakota.

“If we allow others to define ourselves, we’re always going to get that kind of negative image,” Goulet said.

Workers needed

The campaign is a public-private partnership led by the foundation, overseen by private sector business and education leaders. Energy company Hess gave the foundation $400,000 to start, with the state Department of Commerce adding a matching $400,000.

The foundation hopes to raise $2.5 million in two years for the campaign.

Although one of the campaign’s initial benefactors is a major player in the state’s oil and gas industry, organizers want to emphasize that many of the jobs — 60 percent, they say — are outside the Bakken oil region.

One of them is Intelligent InSites in Fargo, where they’re looking for about 20 employees, about half of them software developers, said Jim Traynor, the company’s director of market development.

“We’re reaching out to beyond Fargo and the Red River Valley to come and fill those roles,” he said.

The state had almost 23,000 online job openings in March, according to Job Service North Dakota, up 25 percent from a year ago. At the same time, there were almost 11,000 active resumes.

The state has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 2.6 percent, driven by the energy industry but aided by other sectors as well. Recruiting and retaining a permanent workforce is often cited as the biggest business issue in North Dakota.

“I look at this much like what’s happening in the Bakken, where all of a sudden they found out all their roads and infrastructure wasn’t suitable for what’s going on out there,” Goulet said. “I look at this almost as an infrastructure issue.”

The ad campaign will target states with higher underemployment and unemployment, such as Ohio and Michigan, as well as college students in nearby states. It also will create a Web portal where job seekers can find information, such as job listings from Job Service, according to a white paper provided by the Department of Commerce.

Representatives at the Bismarck advertising and marketing firm Odney, which was hired for the campaign, deferred to the Department of Commerce for comment.

Active approach

Being as specific as possible about the benefits of moving to North Dakota will make the campaign more effective, said Shashi Matta, a professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University.

“I think an effective ad campaign should have a very singular and very specific message about what North Dakota can offer,” he said. Matta said that task is made more difficult because the campaign is covering the entire state and multiple industries, including information technology and health care. “You want to have broad appeal, but you can’t afford to sound very generic.”

Matta said clearly articulating the benefits of living in North Dakota is even more important because leaders are trying to persuade people to move instead of merely vacationing here, a far less important life decision.

Laura Trude moved here about five years ago from the Twin Cities suburb of Andover. She said she enjoys living in Grand Forks because it feels like a mix between a small town and large city.

“You have the friendly people as well as the cultural aspects and shopping,” she said.

Sara Otte Coleman, director of the tourism division at the Department of Commerce, said they want to point out the positives of living here but don’t want to be misleading either.

“So, the campaign is by no means going to paint a rosy picture and tell them we have 70 degrees year-round,” she said “What we’re setting out to do is to talk about the good parts about living in North Dakota, which are a solid economy, great job opportunities, good quality of life and great schools.”

Campaign organizers want to emphasize those points especially in the midst of media interest in the rapid changes in the western part of the state. The Associated Press reported earlier this month on law enforcement’s efforts to curb drug crimes in the Oil Patch, a pattern driven by more people coming to North Dakota, although it noted most newcomers are law-abiding citizens looking for work.

The oil boom has brought wealth to the state, the AP reported, but “the bonanza suddenly flourishing here has also brought with it a dark side: a growing trade in meth, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, the shadow of sinister cartels and newfound violence.” Calls for police service in places like Watford City have skyrocketed, it added.

Other major news outlets such as the New York Times and The Economist have reported similar stories, touching on traffic and affordable housing issues.

But state leaders said that, compared with other places, North Dakota is doing well in a number of quality of life categories. Gallup recently ranked North Dakota as the happiest state in the U.S., followed by another poll that found North Dakotans are the most satisfied with their K-12 public school system.

And while the rate of violent crime here has increased over the past few years, it’s relatively low compared with the rest of the nation, according to the United Health Foundation.

“The positive far outweighs the negative things that happen with growth,” said Traynor, who is also the vice president of the Economic Development Foundation’s board. “We just want to take a proactive approach to getting that great message out there.”

For his part, Matta said one of the only things he knows about North Dakota has to do with the weather. He was told by a colleague who has family here that winters in North Dakota are actually better than in Ohio “because they are not as gray.”

“I guess it’s the quality of the air,” he said. “North Dakota kind of has that connotation in my head.”

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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