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Rural communities desperately seeking workers

Long-term commitment sought, small-town living offered.

32 Dollar General sign.jpg
Recent photo of the entrance to Dollar General in Crosby, North Dakota, plastered with hand written signs giving notice of variable hours due to a lack of staff.
Contributed / Brad Nygaard, The Journal
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BISMARCK, N.D. — Rural communities across North Dakota are desperate to attract and retain workers at small businesses such as shops, restaurants, health centers, gas stations and other essential services to keep their communities alive and vibrant.

From Bowman to Bottineau, Crosby to Harvey, they’re also in competition with each other for those workers, not by choice or desire, but out of necessity. Besides attracting labor, communities are becoming more concerned about losing crucial businesses as baby boomers retire without adequately establishing a succession plan that keeps business viable.

Current workarounds often mean workers pulling double-shifts, restaurants going variable and cutting operating hours, bosses pushing the boundaries of burnout, or for others, shuttering completely.

For Julie Mears, owner of clothing store Golden Rule on Main Street in Bottineau, it means pulling extra duty during shifts she can’t hire for, relying on a staff of mostly teenagers who also often have their own sporadic schedules, and trying to keep things light while managing the variability.

“There’s been a rush on clinical strength deodorant by business owners around the state,” Mears joked between attending to a steady bustle of customers checking out winter coats sales and homecoming outfits.

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It is also a delicate balance when trying to attract new workers from within the community or from nearby towns, since everyone is pretty much in the same boat, she said.

“We really don’t want to be stealing from other communities,” Mears said, echoing similar thoughts by small business owners across the state.

In Harvey, at the B-52 Roadhouse and Lanes, the inability to fully staff the establishment has halted in-restaurant dining during the evening, reducing business by around half, according to owner Chris Kara.

“We have been short-staffed for years, not to this extent, but it has been creeping up to this level for quite some time,” Kara said, adding that he has no applications on his desk so expects hours to remain affected for some time.

He also saw no real possibility of attracting workers from nearby.

“The neighboring communities within reasonable driving distance are small and most of them are already employed,” he said.

Without outside help to get to a more equal playing field with larger metro areas, the rural labor shortage will likely persist for some time, with the smallest communities withering, and others treading water.

According to 2021 data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses — the majority which have 20 employees or under — in North Dakota accounted for 98.8% of all businesses.

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Small businesses employed a total of 196,770 people last year, a number that has held somewhat steady in recent years, though there was a net decrease in over 12,000 jobs at smaller operations across the state during that period.

Beautiful, fun loving, enjoys quiet vibes

These businesses are also the major economic drivers and employers in most rural areas and important cogs to communities there. Trouble is, larger cities already have a leg up, so economic development officials need to find alternative ways to entice labor into certain areas.

“Everybody talks about the vibe in downtown Fargo. Well, I hate to say it, but there’s not a downtown vibe in Glen Ullin or Gackle or Bowman, right?” said Alan Haut, district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration. “There’s a vibe there. It’s a nice peaceful, quiet vibe. But it’s tough to recruit people into those areas.”

Towns like Bowman and Bottineau are trying to change that perception, however.

Instead of chasing big business like some communities did during hydrocarbon boom years, development officials have had to change gears to try to attract new talent to their communities.

“Now economic development has grown to include focuses on quality of life and community development projects,” said Teran Doerr, executive director of the Bowman County Development Corp. “People are not relocating just for the job anymore, but for the community they are in.”

For Bowman that means adding a recreational facility, a splash pad for kids to play at, beautification projects and incentives for businesses to upgrade storefronts, she said.

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“What we do here is very multifaceted and that’s a lot different from what economic development offices used to be,” Doerr said.

While concentrating on making the town more attractive, Bowman has also initiated grants to companies for tuition assistance, career advancement training, and relocation assistance to address workforce challenges as well as grants for starting or expanding home child care facilities, Doerr said.

To the north in Bottineau, there is a similar refrain, but one that leans toward creating more atmosphere with activities instead of relying on beautification projects.

“Our main focus has been on creating a community that people want to live in, so we do a lot of advertising about what events we have available,” said Whitney Gronitzke, executive director of the Bottineau County Economic Development Corp.

“We have something going on almost every day event-wise, activity-wise,” Gronitzke said.

Looking for an ongoing relationship

Besides trying to attract workers and professionals to their communities, rural towns are increasingly faced with the challenge of how to replace or continue community-crucial businesses when an owner retires.

“What I’m seeing is that in a lot of these small towns you have a lot of plumbers or electricians that run their own businesses, and they’re a critical need in those communities, but they’re starting to retire out,” said Haut.

For many of these stoic, small town entrepreneurs, thinking about retirement often only comes at the last minute, but there is a real need for such planning for both business people and their communities to transition.

To address this, the SBA along with the North Dakota Small Business Development Centers, Bank of North Dakota and rural banking associations have established a succession planning guide that they are trying to promote in smaller towns.

“I’m hopeful that this starts conversations in a lot of these rural communities and hopefully that will set some of these businesses up for a successful transition,” Haut said.

The North Dakota News Cooperative is a new nonprofit providing real journalism about North Dakotans for North Dakotans. To support local journalism, make your charitable contribution at www.newscoopnd.org. Comments, suggestions, tips? Email michael@newscoopnd.org. Follow us on Twitter @NDNewsCoop.

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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