District 43 candidates have strong feelings about labor shortage that plagues the state – and Grand Forks

GRAND FORKS — All six of the candidates who seek to represent District 43 in the Legislature say North Dakota’s labor shortage is a crisis that needs to be addressed when lawmakers convene in January

The worker shortage is an oft-reported issue in North Dakota that most businesses – and, to an extent, residents – are experiencing in one form or another. Earlier this year, Gov. Doug Burgum said there were nearly 20,000 open job listings with Job Service North Dakota. In the previous year, that number had risen some 19%. At one point this year, it was estimated the number of open jobs statewide – online postings and otherwise – totaled somewhere around 30,000.

It’s noticeable in Grand Forks, according to Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Chamber of Commerce.

“The workforce shortage is constricting the growth of many businesses and our overall community,” he told the Herald this week. “Locally and at the state level many initiatives are underway and have shown success. … At a national level a well-managed immigration process is long overdue. Increasing the number of work visas is a federal solution that would immediately help address the severe national worker shortage of over 14 million unfilled positions.”

The worker shortage is causing higher prices for all goods, longer wait times for services, restricted seating in places like restaurants and threatens to continue to burden businesses in the state. During his 2022 State of the State address, Burgum said North Dakota businesses are “begging for workers.”

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In Grand Forks, a survey last year showed there were no fewer than 1,700 open positions that local employers could immediately fill if enough workers were available. And nearly three-fourths of employers surveyed said worker shortages are limiting business prosperity in the region.

Also in Grand Forks, local development and city officials anxiously await the construction of the new Career Impact Academy, a facility that will provide area high school students and adults with training for jobs in the high-demand fields of the community and immediate region. The project was deemed so important locally that Grand Forks businesses and individuals donated $11 million so it could qualify for $10 million in state funding.

“It’s important to get the planned career and technical education center fully funded and up and running,” Wilfahrt said. “There are other new creative local and statewide approaches that merit investment during the 2023 legislative session as well.”

Smack in the middle of Grand Forks is District 43, which generally sits between I-29 on the west and 20th Street on the east, and between DeMers Avenue on the north to 32nd Avenue on the south.

On Nov. 8, voters will send two candidates from a field of four to the state House of Representatives, as well as one candidate from a field of two to the state Senate.

Those seeking one of the two House positions are Democrat Mary Adams, Republican Ethan Harsell, Democrat Zac Ista and Republican Eric J. Murphy. Adams and Ista are the incumbents.

The Senate race includes Democrat JoNell Bakke and Republican Jeff Barta. Bakke is the incumbent.

For a deeper look at the candidates, go to the Grand Forks Herald's website and search for the story headlined: A look at the candidates seeking election to the Legislature from Grand Forks' District 43 .

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Considering all of the chatter about the labor shortage in recent months, it’s probably no surprise most of the District 43's candidates have strong feelings about the problem.

Barta said he believes there are two paths to solving the shortage: “Developing ways to keep our young home-grown talent right here in North Dakota. They need a reason to stay. (And) give people a reason to move to North Dakota.”

He wants to focus on the former, using as an example the efforts taken locally to build the UAS industry.

“Grand Forks became an early leader by setting the trend as opposed to chasing it. We procured investment by the state, county and city, which not only created opportunities for our young professionals to stay here, but to also attract people to Grand Forks from all over the country,” Barta said. “What attracts people? Affordable housing, strong schools and a safe and family friendly community to raise a family are the prime motivators. Each of these can be impacted by sound investment by the Legislature.”

Bakke, his opponent for the district’s Senate seat, said “absolutely, we need to address our state's workforce shortage, including the teacher shortages in the state.”

She feels it’s important to “address the reasons for these workforce shortages, such as lack of quality child care, low wages and adequate training/education.”

“I have worked on the Higher Education Interim Committee, where we spent an extensive amount of time on workforce issues and drafted several bills to provide scholarships for training at all levels,” Bakke said.

Among the House candidates, Ista said workforce solutions must be among the Legislature’s top priorities when it convenes in January.

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“First, we can help moms and dads get back into the workforce by making it easier to find and afford childcare. Second, we can keep moms and dads in the workforce by enacting paid family leave policies, so no worker has to choose between a paycheck or caring for a sick loved one. Third, we must invest in the pipelines that create new workers,” said Ista, an assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County.

The key, Ista said, is to support education initiatives that promote training, but “we also have to partner with the businesses and labor unions who spend every day thinking about these critical issues.”

Murphy, a professor at UND and an entrepreneur, said it will require “creative thinking” along with aggressive marketing strategies. North Dakota, he said, has safe communities, low taxes and little interference from the government while being an entrepreneur-friendly state.

“We offer all these elements in North Dakota, so we need to sell our state and the opportunities it offers rather than trying to chase trends or be the next great thing,” Murphy said. “The same thing that attracted the pioneers will attract folks in 2022 and beyond.”

Harsell, a student at UND and teacher at United Day Nursery, believes “we must recognize that we should not force young people to attend college, but rather train them for the career path that is best for them.”

And even with what Harsell says are strong universities, colleges and tech schools, “young people are leaving North Dakota either due to mismatched education or lack of affordability and opportunity.”

He believes that “by keeping Grand Forks affordable so young families can stay here or move here we address the latter, and ending one-size-fits-all education ends the former.”

Adams, a Realtor, said the labor shortage “should be a major topic for the Legislature.” After all, she said, “laborers are the backbone of so many industries. We need to help train workers in every field.”

Absentee voting began Sept. 29 and runs through Nov. 7. Voters who wish to have an absentee ballot mailed should call 701-780-8200.

Early voting will take place at the Alerus Center, entrance 6, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 1-4 and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Nov. 5.

Voting on Election Day will be from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the following sites in Grand Forks:

● Alerus Center Voting Center, 1200 42nd St. South, Entrance 8, Grand Forks, ND

● Holy Family Voting Center, 1018 18th Ave. South, Grand Forks, ND

● Home of Economy Voting Center, 1508 N Washington St., Grand Forks, ND

● ICON Arena/GF Park District Office Voting Center, 1060 47th Ave. South, Grand Forks, ND.



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