Addressing the Workforce Challenge

Written by: Brady Drake

By Katie Ralston Howe, Workforce Director North Dakota Department of Commerce

Before the pandemic, North Dakota had more jobs available than people to fill them. Despite population growth throughout the last decade, we know that if every unemployed individual, every justice involved individual exiting our criminal justice system and every graduate from our post-secondary education system took jobs today, we would still have thousands of jobs open in our state. With lack of workforce being the number one challenge impacting economic growth in North Dakota, we are helping people around the country discover North Dakota and the quality of life offered here. We’re creating opportunities for students to explore and prepare for jobs. We’re breaking down barriers to promote entrance and movement throughout the workforce.

A key player in developing the state’s workforce strategy is the North Dakota Workforce Development Council (WDC). The WDC’s role is to advise the governor and the public concerning the nature and extent of the state’s workforce needs and to identify ways to address these needs while maximizing available resources and avoiding unnecessary duplication of effort. In October 2022, the WDC released 10 comprehensive recommendations within the following categories:

  • Earlier and more diverse career exploration
  • Addressing the technical skills gap
  • Removing barriers to employment
  • Occupational licensure reform
  • The recruitment and retention of workers

Several of these recommendations served as the foundation for Governor Doug Burgum’s ND Works Investment Plan which he announced in October at the 2022 Main Street ND Summit. Additionally, while not all of the WDC’s recommendations call for legislative action, seven are included in the 2023-2025 Executive State Budget, four of which are for programs that will be housed within the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

Commerce’s Workforce Development Division has evolved a lot since the beginning of the 2021-2023 biennium. We left the last legislative session with a couple of small grants for skilled workforce training programs and now, thanks to an appropriation of $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds by the legislature during the 2021 special session combined with the wise investment of discretionary dollars, we are operating two large grant programs that are impacting every part of the state, with a third grant launching soon. In addition to the grant programs, we also launched a new comprehensive talent attraction initiative that is successfully helping people around the country discover North Dakota and make the move to their new home in our state. Our larger requests for the 2023- 2025 biennium are designed to build on the programs we launched this biennium.

The first grant program, the Regional Workforce Impact Program (RWIP) was launched last spring. A total of $15 million of the allocated ARPA funds were used to implement this new grant program geared at empowering locally-led solutions to workforce challenges that were caused or exacerbated by the pandemic. Unique to most grant programs, RWIP was designed to focus on regional needs rather than an overall statewide approach. Workforce needs vary by region, so a one-sizefits-all approach is unrealistic and would not adequately address challenges in all parts of the state. The RWIP provides a regional funding strategy that supports local workforce initiatives, giving local and regional partners the ability to access funding tailored to their regional needs. To ensure equitable access to RWIP Grant dollars, a portion of funding was reserved for each of the eight planning regions, based on population as provided by the 2020 decennial U.S. Census.

Another unique aspect of RWIP is the application process. Instead of individual entities applying, regions are required to submit one overall application that encompasses several projects from a variety of eligible entities. Each regional RWIP applicant is required to provide a 25% match of the overall application budget. Due to this unique structure, partners representing rural and urban communities in each region work together to prioritize projects that would have the greatest impact.

Although the RWIP has had challenges, primarily related to limitations within the federal funding source, we’ve seen tremendous success. To date, we have awarded more than $14 million for 58 projects with a few awards still pending. Once these remaining proposals are approved, more than 60 projects will be funded by this grant. Approved projects range from skilled workforce training, career exploration, expansion of career and technical education offerings, affordable housing, talent attraction, child care and more. Each project is in a different stage, so data related to the impact of these dollars continues to come in; however, within child care alone, we’re supporting 33 facilities that are using its grants to expand capacity by adding a total of 1,590 new child care slots statewide.

The RWIP model has proven to be effective, so our goal next biennium is to expand on it and create more flexibility in how grant funds can be used to foster more creativity and innovation in the projects communities develop. We believe that implementation of the state’s workforce strategy will be stronger if communities are enabled and empowered to develop workforce initiatives that are aligned with the core themes on which the WDC focuses.

The second program we’re facilitating using $3 million of the allocated ARPA funds is the Technical Skills Training Grant. This program is designed to support eligible training providers and employers in their efforts to launch or expand rapid, nondegree reskilling and upskilling programs. All training programs must mitigate a workforce issue that was created or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This program has two tracks, each focused on developing or expanding a highly skilled workforce:

Track A reflects the initial intent of this grant program when we first launched it in 2020 and is designed for new and expanding accelerated, non-degree training programs that prepare trainees for new jobs. Applicants in this track are eligible for up to $100,000 with a 1:1 match.

Track B is designed for companies wishing to provide internal upskilling opportunities for their existing staff to promote movement and advancement throughout the organization, create more comprehensive onboarding and new worker training programs or provide safety training for employees. Applicants in this track may be eligible for up to $50,000 with a 1:1 match.

Since its inception, the Technical Skills Training Grant has supported the launch and expansion of programs in health care, energy, transportation and logistics, IT, welding, UAS and more. This biennium alone, we’ve obligated more than $1 million for 20 training programs that are upskilling and reskilling workers across the state. Throughout the grant’s lifetime, we have supported 32 training programs with a total capacity of 797 trainees. It’s important to note that most of the programs we’ve supported using federal dollars are sustainable and will continue to prepare citizens for entrance and movement within the workforce for years to come, thus creating more pathways to employment in our state.

In addition to the grant programs, we also launched Find the Good Life in North Dakota (FTGL), a comprehensive talent attraction initiative that utilizes a software system that allows us to collect information from job seekers, connect them with communities that offer the quality of life they’re looking for and employers in their field. Through this system, we can track their progress as they explore opportunities in North Dakota until the point at which they accept a job here and call North Dakota home. Although many states have marketing campaigns or big incentive programs to attract people, North Dakota is the first state to take this hands-on, innovative approach to help individuals and families actually make the move.

This is being achieved through collaboration with a contractor, Commerce’s Tourism and Marketing Division, Job Service North Dakota and our community champions. Now up to 70, the community champions are volunteers from around the state who are engaging with job seekers to connect them with employers and share information about their communities based on the interests the job seeker has shared with us through our relocation help desk.

Our relocation help desk existed in a less formal capacity before we revived FTGL in June 2022, but we couldn’t have shared this type of information. What we know is that from May 2021 to May 2022, 106 people submitted forms through our relocation help desk and based on self-reporting, which can be spotty, we believe 15 people made the move in that year. Now, in just six months, we’ve grown the number of job seekers interested in North Dakota by 10 times.

Currently, we have more than 1,100 job seekers in our pipeline who have chosen to share with us their names, contact information, industry interest or experience and the activities and amenities that offer the quality of life they’re looking for. More than 300 individuals have asked to connect with a community champion and 10 job seekers and their families have already moved to North Dakota. This number continues to grow with many in the final stages of securing jobs, housing and child care. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re in the early stages of this program we’re building. However, we’re pleased with the trajectory it’s on and we are excited to help more individuals and families find their good life in North Dakota.

More important than these numbers are the stories behind them.

  • One individual moved to Minot from Washington in July 2022 before he had a job and was hired within a week of arriving. He’s now working for an IT company.
  • Another had been to North Dakota for work and after visiting the eastern side of the state in October with his wife and son, they moved to West Fargo from upstate New York in December 2022.
  • Finally, another person moved to Wahpeton from Texas last fall and is working for a manufacturing company. His wife and children will join him after this school year, and we’ll get to help her find a dream job, too.

The list of success stories will continue to grow, especially with the horsepower we plan to put behind this initiative with increased funding. Governor Doug Burgum recently included $25 million for talent attraction in the 2023-2025 Executive State Budget. These funds will be used for increased marketing strategies and initiatives to help individuals come to our state to explore communities that offer the quality of life they’re looking for and to engage with employers in their industry. Currently, 78% of the job seekers utilizing FTGL have never been to North Dakota, and we know that people are more likely to move to a place they’ve visited.

We have big plans for the next biennium and beyond. As a state, we’re taking calculated risks to try new things to address our state’s workforce needs and multiple agencies are working together to enhance career exploration and work-based learning opportunities, to ensure we have a workforce with the skills our employers need, to remove barriers to employment, to attract people to our state and to keep new and existing North Dakotans here. We hear your cries for help. We also hear the criticisms that “we’re not doing anything.” The reality is that workforce strategies are often a long game, and it may take a while to see the return on investment. We’re planting seeds now that are starting to grow, and their impact will soon be quantifiable. As a state workforce system, we are happy to answer your questions and more than anything, we welcome your ideas and your collaboration.


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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.