Finding Solutions to North Dakota’s Workforce Shortage, Bylined Article in Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce Report on Business
By Tom Shorma, CEO/President of WCCO Belting, Inc.
We all see the hiring signs located outside businesses across the state, even while knowing that there are many more jobs in North Dakota than available applicants. Although we are feeling the impact of this workforce shortage locally, companies nationwide are facing the challenges of a job market in which there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill open positions.
Many states are taking a proactive approach to bridge the workforce gap. Tennessee, New York, Oregon, Nevada, and Minnesota all offer free tuition at two-year community colleges with the caveat that participants stay and work in the state for a period after graduation. Others are offering grants to entice workers to move to their state to work in trade professions.
I believe there are steps that both local businesses and state leaders can take to help mitigate this situation in North Dakota. This includes taking a closer look at what is causing the workforce shortage locally, how we can more successfully train workers with the skills local companies need, and how we can do a better job of attracting and retaining talent both within our businesses and within our state.
One-two punch causing local shortage
The cause of North Dakota’s workforce shortage is two-fold. On one hand, we don’t have the population to fill jobs. In fact, this year there were only about 7,300 high school graduates statewide.
At the same time, fewer people are being trained for trade careers than ever before. Students today are more likely to be encouraged to get a four-year degree than attend a technical or trade school, even though jobs in trade and technical fields abound. Not only are those professions in high demand, but the education comes at a fraction of the cost.
Most North Dakota companies aren’t looking for people to just fill jobs, we are looking for people who want a career in which they can grow and advance. Many of today’s manufacturing careers are much different than people envision them to be. For example, for those who understand lean manufacturing, safety parameters, and have management skills, a career path in manufacturing can be extremely rewarding. To support their operation, manufacturing businesses also require teams of accountants, engineers, and various others with professional expertise.
Finding solutions at the state level
To ensure there are enough citizens to work in manufacturing and trade careers, I believe we need to start educating young people about these opportunities earlier. We should be exposing high school students to a multitude of career options before high school graduation.
One way to do this is to leverage our state training centers, like the one at North Dakota State College of Science (NDSCS). NDSCS is unique in that it can meet the needs of both college and local high school students. It introduces and promotes trade careers to teenagers in addition to providing the technical education needed to develop skilled working adults.
Today, this type of career training center is arguably even more important for high school students because schools are reducing or eliminating courses like home economics, woodworking, electrical, and welding. Through the recently proposed NDSCS-managed Career Training Center in Fargo, students could take these hands-on courses, earn college credit for their efforts, and receive manufacturing and trade profession exposure.
Like other states nationwide, I believe we could also be more aggressive at offering grants to encourage workers to relocate to North Dakota, offering free or reduced tuition for trade schools or community colleges. What if we offered free trade training reciprocity with other states? Might we consider being the first state to offer trade career training tuition-free nationally if the student becomes a permanent resident after graduation?
Creating solutions within our companies
At WCCO Belting, we are working to overcome the challenges faced by the workforce shortage by focusing our attention on our current employees. We continually develop methods, like company-wide monthly meetings for communicating news, updates, and answering questions, to ensure everyone understands our business as a whole and not just their own day-to-day responsibilities. This inclusivity and big picture thinking helps us hire and retain top talent.
In addition, we’ve created over 50 entry-level career development opportunities to help WCCO employees learn how to most effectively do their jobs and grow at the company. We also offer learning opportunities to all employees through our wellness initiative. This includes personal growth activities such as having local bankers speak about money management or an occupational therapist teach healthy workplace behavior.
Workplace culture is among the biggest reasons people stay at a company. By providing our employees with the training and support they need to be successful, they become a part of the WCCO Belting family. Through our family-oriented model, we create an environment where people want to work and be successful. It is a basic concept that is making a big difference, especially reduced turnover.
This model is further proven effective because the majority of our new employees come recommended by current employees. They recruit members of their family and their friends to fill open positions because they value their career and the opportunities they have at WCCO. In turn, we reward our employees financially for recruiting on our behalf.
At WCCO Belting, utilizing training opportunities, creating a robust set of benefits for employees, and rewarding employees for hard work helps us recruit and retain new team members. I believe business leaders and state leaders together need to consider our assets and determine how we can leverage them to expand our employee pool. If we do so, I believe the state workforce shortage is a problem we can collectively solve.