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Wally Goulet: Housing crunch eases, but workforce needs remain

MANDAN, N.D. — The Herald’s recent editorial correctly points out that housing is a very real challenge created by our state’s economic success (“Workforce campaign must wrestle with housing,” Page A4, March 19).

But as chair of the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation, I also believe our organization’s commitment to workforce development is timely, appropriate and important.

Housing already is the focus of federal, state and local government agencies and private sector initiatives across North Dakota. And, while there’s more to do, these efforts are making real progress. In fact, our state now ranks No. 1 in the nation for housing starts.

Realtors in Minot report that demand there is leveling out. Housing starts in Fargo are up dramatically. Forum News Service’s own Amy Dalrymple reported that rents in Williston are starting to show signs of softening.

Crew camp and temporary housing occupancy rates are dropping. Thousands of new housing units have been built in communities from the valley to the oil fields, and thousands more are in the works.

Meanwhile, ensuring the availability of a trained workforce to meet the needs of our state’s economic success cannot be ignored. North Dakota has some 25,000 job openings today and is expected to add another 76,000 jobs by 2020. The business community has identified the availability of a skilled workforce as their highest priority -- and just having more housing will not ensure we have the trained workforce our state needs.

Contrary to popular belief, our workforce needs are not just limited to oil and gas producing counties. More than 60 percent of all current job openings exist outside the oil and gas counties. There are 1,100 more job openings in the Fargo area today than there were last year at this time.

It is true that the challenge of adequate housing exists in some communities, but workforce shortages exist in virtually every corner of the state.

And while our energy sector has significant workforce challenges, it is not alone. Health care, manufacturing, transportation, public services, agriculture, tourism and retail all report significant workforce shortages.

From engineers to welders and roughnecks to nurses, North Dakota must develop, recruit and retain a permanent skilled workforce to meet the needs of our economy today and in the future.

The North Dakota Economic Development Foundation is a 22-member board comprised of business leaders from across the state. We are charged with helping the governor and Department of Commerce develop and execute strategies that improve our state’s competitiveness and increase economic growth.

Our recent decision to launch the Find the Good Life in North Dakota workforce development campaign is in keeping with both our mission and our strategic plan. More important, it seeks to address a significant and growing challenge facing our state’s business community by giving potential job seekers the tools and information they need to successfully enter our workforce and take advantage of all our state has to offer.

If our state is to continue to grow and thrive, we must simultaneously work to solve a number of the challenges our state’s economic renaissance has created including, but not limited to, housing and workforce development. Failing to do so threatens not only our current economic success, but the promise of our state’s bright future.

Goulet is chair of the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation. He also serves as vice president and general counsel of National Information Solutions Cooperative, an information technology company.