Josh Grinde has seen a lot. But the supply chain snarls confounding Right Choice Electric, the Grand Forks business that’s kept the lights on at homes, farms and commercial buildings for years, is certainly new.
Parts are back-ordered for weeks or months. Some colors of electrical tape are running out. Grinde recently said he hasn’t been able to get electrical panel covers for four months. Some parts are so hard to find that some projects — now scheduled to finish after the winter frost— need to have outdoor digging done now, before the ground gets too hard, well before a critical part arrives for the completion of the project.
“Every time you think it’s going to get better, it doesn’t,” he said. “We’re trying to get some meter banks and main disconnects for a building that caught on fire, and they don’t know if they’re six to eight weeks out. You never know. You used to be able to get them within two.”
The nation’s imported products are backed up in virtual bottlenecks at U.S. ports, especially in California. As shown nightly on national news programs, some ships are waiting weeks to unload.
The problem is complex, tied to labor shortages, pandemic shutdowns and factories that are just now re-starting production. While suppliers reboot their businesses, their products run short, setting off a cascading series of products that can’t reach manufacturers and customers. Even the shipping containers themselves are among the hard-to-find commodities.
“A bike has pieces that are comprised of (products from) about 12 different warehouses, roughly,” said Simon Murphy, a sales employee at Grand Forks’ Ski & Bike Shop. “If one of those factories shuts down, they aren’t able to ship the bike. Say someone is waiting on a rear derailleur. They aren’t able to ship the bike, and bike shops are lacking bikes that way, because not everything is produced under one roof.”
Across North Dakota, there’s just as much worry about labor supply, too, which has caused truck driver shortages, countless open nursing positions and more as the economy realigns around a post-COVID world. There are varying theories for why that’s happening — workers who have savings and are now choosy about their jobs; a backlog of people waiting to quit who didn’t during the pandemic; or even a glut of open jobs as the economy reopens.
Carter Fong, the executive director of the Dickinson Area Chamber, said that’s a serious problem in Dickinson, too, overshadowing concerns about consumer goods or manufacturing supplies — which are often themselves the result of an extraordinarily tight labor market.
“I think supply issues here could be the result of workforce issues 1,000 miles away,” he said.
Bismarck has seen serious labor force issues, too.
“Delays have been experienced with appliances, fixtures and furniture but it seems the consumers are adjusting accordingly,” City Administrator Keith Hunke wrote in an email. “...Our Achilles heel, as it is with most communities, is workforce. We are continuing to see hours of operations being adjusted in our service industry/retail/restaurant sector due to labor issues.”
And the nagging supply chain issues continue, seemingly everywhere.
Murphy, the Ski & Bike Shop employee, said merchandise has been slow to arrive since the start of the COVID pandemic. Bikes, Murphy said, need to be stocked in mid-winter to account for the expected spring buying frenzy. Winter skiing gear was ordered a year in advance.
“It’s really tough to gauge how to order, because last season, when the pandemic hit, everybody wanted to be doing outdoor activities,” he said. “We sold through our cross-country skis within a matter of a month.”
Shifts associated with the supply chain affect everyone differently. At the Ski & Bike shop, the surge in interest in outdoor activity means a deeper relationship with more long-term customers, Murphy said. Fo Grinde, it’s a financial liability, clogging up his work schedule.
“What it does is (a job) takes twice as long to get it done. This part comes in, you go in and get it, and put it in. Then you wait for the next part to come in,” Grinde said.
For now, he said, that means doing everything he can to stay on top of work.
“You’re just trying to stay ahead of the game all the time,” Grinde said. “You never know what’s going to show up when.”