The number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Grand Forks County has fallen dramatically from its peak shortly after the beginning of the pandemic, but the region may need to see an influx of new people to fill available jobs.

In December, the most recent month for which information is available, the unemployment rate in Grand Forks County was at 3.4%, down considerably from April, when the rate was at 9.2% and more than 3,400 were out of work. Now, the number of job-seekers is nearly equal to the number of job openings listed with Job Service of North Dakota in Grand Forks. But because some of those positions are for people with particular skills, it doesn't mean the pool of available workers can fill all of the available jobs.

“If we're talking to fill those spots, yes we could use more people in Grand Forks, whether they come from bigger cities like Minneapolis or Fargo,” said Dustin Hillebrand, Workforce Center manager at Job Service of North Dakota.

In Grand Forks County, some 1,308 people are unemployed in the county and 1,184 openings are listed at Job Service, as of January. On paper at least, that bodes well for job-seekers, as there is nearly a one-to-one match of people to job openings. In December 2019, when unemployment stood at 1.8%, the average was less than one person – actually, it was .48 – per opening.

“Labor supply is there, but that's not saying that the people have the skills for those positions,” Hillebrand said.

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According to labor market information from Job Service, openings have increased in areas that require special skills, training or licenses. In January, there were 209 health care practitioner and technical job openings, compared to 146 in January 2020, a 43% increase. Other occupation groups saw increases as well, including health care support, which added 12 more job openings compared to the previous year. Transportation and material moving jobs skyrocketed by 56%, with 133 openings compared to 85 last year. The skills needed for those jobs make them difficult to fill.

“If everybody got a job right now we'd fill all the positions in our system, if we could match the skills to the employer that the job-seeker had,” Hillebrand said. “That's never going to happen, anywhere you go.”

As some occupation groups have remained stable through the pandemic – installation, maintenance and repair jobs, for example, both had more than 50 openings in January in 2020 and January 2021 – other groups have taken a nosedive. Openings for food preparation and serving jobs fell over the one-year period, from 102 to 66. The largest decrease attributable to the pandemic was in education, where job openings fell from 154 to 35.

Overall, though, Hillebrand said the region is trending in the right direction. Unemployment has steadily decreased, despite a recent uptick due to more construction workers being laid off after a mild winter extended the working season. In Grand Forks County, as of Feb. 13, there were 561 continued claims for unemployment benefits, and 78 people filed their initial claim. That’s down from the highpoint of the week ending May 9, when Job Service recorded 3,182 continuing claims. Hillebrand said he expects the situation to improve when more county residents have received the coronavirus vaccine, and when people feel more comfortable going out.

And when it comes to adding more people to the region, Hillebrand said he is all for it. Doing so would create more opportunities for the community, and would help fill all job openings, including those in-demand skilled positions.

“While everybody else might not be hiring at quite the same level, we still have openings and we need good people to fill those positions,” he said.