“Help wanted” signs have become almost as ubiquitous as pickup trucks and oil rigs in booming Dickinson, with everyone from Menards to McDonald’s looking to hire. But while the demand is there, supply has yet to catch up.

An April 1 report from Job Service North Dakota’s Labor Market Information Center found that there are roughly 2,041 job openings listed online in Stark County, and just 417 active resumes posted online by job-seekers - and that’s not even including unlisted jobs in the service and retail industries. With more than 98 percent of Dickinson’s eligible workforce either employed or actively looking for employment, many companies have been hard-pressed to fill new job openings.

“Because of the economy that we’re in, more employers are looking for workers than are available,” said Mary Urlacher, customer service office manager at Job Service North Dakota. “There are more jobs than seekers.”

Offering incentives

While much of the rest of the country struggles under a recession and a 6.7 percent unemployment rate, North Dakota’s unemployment rate has remained steady at 3.3 percent; unemployment in Dickinson in March was 1.8 percent.

The hiring crunch has put companies in competition to attract workers.

McDonald’s offers a $300 signing bonus in addition to a $11 an hour starting salary for its food prep and crew team, according to their website. The Taco Bell off of Highway 22 boasts “top wages” on its billboard.

“Everybody will have challenges, but I think with some of the incentives they’re offering, each company is offering something different,” Urlacher said. “I think that they will get creative and will be able to fill those positions.”

Urlacher said her organization has worked one-on-one with companies across the city, arranging job fairs like last month’s multi-industry event at Dickinson State University that drew in more than 400 job-seekers, and working with employers to re-word job postings “to be more specific, to be more enticing,” she said. Job Service North Dakota began tweeting job postings last year to reach potential employees.

“Recruitment of individuals is crucial, and (companies) are doing that,” Urlacher said.

Housing problem

But despite businesses’ best efforts to attract and recruit new workers, there are external factors contributing to the sluggish supply.

Cooper Whitman, executive director of the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce, said staffing is the “No. 1 difficulty” facing employers in the booming economy, both in terms of recruiting new hires and retaining workers. The overpriced housing market is a primary cause.

“Employers are having to pay more to make up the difference,” he said. “There’s just no way to keep up. Businesses can’t say, ‘We’ll pay $25 an hour.’ They’d have to lay off half their staff.”

He said that companies can offer higher wages and benefits, but until the housing market stabilizes, there’s “little we can do that we’ve figured out so far.

“It’s hard for there to be any changes you can really make,” he said. “If we had 3 percent unemployment, we wouldn’t have a problem. I guess we just have to wait.”

With the Roers Development park set to expand later this year and with dirt being moved on the Dickinson Hills Shopping Center - both retail centers are off of Interstate 94 Exit 59 - employees will be in even higher demand.

“There’s so much going on,” Whitman said. “It’s gonna be busy.”

‘New set of challenges’

For now, not all businesses are feeling the hiring pinch. Taronda Johns, general manager of the Hardee’s on Villard, started her job just a month and a half ago with around 12 employees, and staff was stretched thin. Today, she said, there are 32 on staff, including herself.

“I’ve hired 27 people since I’ve been here,” she said. “It’s a challenge. Everyone’s hiring at the same time and competing to fill the positions. But the community welcomed me with open arms and started sending me people.”

Johns said many of her part-time employees are shared with nearby Dairy Barn, Sanfords and Bonanza. Without any advertising, she’s been able to fill positions simply by word-of-mouth and retain most of her workers.

While she continues hiring, she said employees have had to work longer hours, but “they volunteer. We all work together.”

Whitman said businesses will be pressed to adapt to the current labor market.

“It’s a new set of challenges,” he said, “which can be exciting. It’s good for any company to be evolving and looking internally to change. There are few communities who wouldn’t trade their problems for ours.”

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