The city of Grand Forks is having a hard time hiring engineers, causing the city to outsource more projects that staff otherwise would take care of in house.

The struggle to fill open engineering jobs reflects a larger state and nationwide hardship, according to Commissioner Michelle Kommer of the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

“The entire nation today has a workforce shortage,” said Kommer. “For the first time in our nation’s history, last summer it was reported our country has more jobs than it has people to do them. And North Dakota is in that same situation.”

The engineering department’s difficulty filling positions is also indicative of a hardship faced by several other departments. City Administrator Todd Feland called the engineering department the “poster child” for a citywide problem during a committee meeting of the Grand Forks City Council on Monday, April 8.

During the same meeting, City Council President Dana Sande called attention to the fact staff requested more than $462,000 that night to pay outside engineering firms for projects to repave a portion of Cherry Street and to install bike paths on portions of Sixth Avenue North and 17th Avenue South.

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City Engineer Al Grasser said his department typically would handle smaller city projects, like the bike path, if not for lack of staff.

Anticipating retirements

According to Grasser, his department has several divisions, including those focused on inspections, electrical work and engineering. In the latter category, Grasser counted about 20 staffers. There currently are still two open senior-level positions there, one of which has been hired and will begin in October. Grand Forks is still looking to hire an assistant city engineer.

Engineering duties include dealing with planning and zoning items, installing storm water sewers, interacting with federal and state officials on projects, managing consultants, doing administrative work, working with local groups and developers on city-led projects, and conducting emergency repairs.

“If there’s a street blow-up out there in the field, somebody goes out there and works with a contractor to get that repaired. Sidewalk repairs, driveways,” Grasser said.

City officials say they have been anticipating a wave of retirements in engineering and other technical departments.

“Where we were last spring-summer, we were talking about or anticipating the amount of retirements and the experience that’s going to be walking out of our engineering department in the near future,” said Linsey Rood with Human Resources. “Slowly but surely we're getting there, but it has been one of the most challenging fields to hire for in the city. "

“We have probably a number of other retirements coming up in the next year or two,” said Grasser. “And what’s concerning is the position we’ve been advertising for has been advertised for quite some time now, with limited qualified applicants.”

Grand Forks doesn't have a problem with hiring entry-level engineers, Grasser said. Rather, engineers the department has groomed to take on more senior positions are leaving for better opportunities, and the senior engineers Grand Forks is trying to attract from other places likely are comfortable where they're at.

“And it kind of makes sense, when you think about it,” said Grasser. “If you’re looking for a seasoned professional, and wherever it is that they’re at, they’ve been in their communities for 20 years, their spouse has a job, they’re settled into their house. It’s very difficult to entice that level of individual to move.”

Rood said the city often finds itself competing with private-sector positions.

"The private sector has higher salaries, as well as opportunities for bonuses and profit sharing," said Rood. "But on the downside of that, they have the 60-hour work weeks, the traveling and the instability. ... We have the stability within our organization, the better hours, no travel and then the great retirement benefits."

A statewide struggle

Kommer, of the state Department of Commerce, said North Dakota's workforce shortage affects private and public sector positions alike.

In 2017, after acknowledging the state apparently had more jobs than people to fill them, Kommer said she and Gov. Doug Burgum reactivated a workforce development council of 32 people, including industry leaders from the private sector, city and local government leaders, legislators, members of organized labor and representatives who raise awareness for barriers to employment.

The council produced a report for Burgum, focusing on five themes of problems. Those themes include a nursing and healthcare workforce shortage, a lack of awareness for technical jobs requiring certification other than a four-year university degree, attracting people from out of state and taking on barriers to employment.

The report included a survey of employers throughout the state in the public and private sector.

“Fifty percent of respondents said that, but for their (inability) to recruit and retain qualified personnel, they would be growing,” Kommer said.

The council's report also offered 38 recommendations and 18 endorsements of efforts already in progress to enhance North Dakota workplaces and communities.

Kommer said the report also led to the passing of House Bill 1171, to provide a skilled workforce scholarship program.

“What it is is what it sounds like,” Kommer said. “Although just to be technically clear, it’s a scholarship and a loan repayment … in a program that connects with our high demand occupation list.”

To avoid having to pay the scholarship back as a loan, Kommer said the student must stay and work in North Dakota for three years.

“This is an ongoing challenge so there has to be ongoing work," Kommer said. "The work of the workforce development council for the last 18 months has been preparatory (of) the 2019 legislative session. We’ve laid the groundwork, we understand the challenges. All that work needed to be done, and now we’ll continue to build on that.”