WILLISTON, N.D.-The jobs bubble in North Dakota has grown much larger than has been reported, but no one is certain how much bigger it's getting to be.
Nor has the state done any particular studies on how much revenue it's losing from the thousands and thousands of positions that are going unfilled, and the activity that isn't occurring as a result.
Jobs in North Dakota tend to trend up and down with oil prices, of course. They can get quite large - like a price bubble - which means they can also suddenly disappear, when oil prices suffer a big downturn.
North Dakota Job Services has estimated that the state's current jobs bubble is 14,000 statewide - a brand new Jamestown, if all of the positions were filled.
But Gov. Doug Burgum, while he was visiting Williston, said many employers have told him that their job postings only represent a fraction of their actual job openings. Companies are listing one or two positions with Job Services, but hiring 10, 20 or even 100 people from that.
"There could be 20, 25,000 job openings in our state," Burgum suggested, based on that.
The North Dakota Office of the State Tax Commissioner says the average liability per tax return is around $637, and each person in the state spends an average of $933 in sales taxes. For 14,000 jobs, that's an estimated $13 million in state tax revenue left on the table. For 25,000 jobs, it would be more like $39.3 million in direct tax revenue lost due to unfilled positions.
The jobs bubble might be even larger, however, than the governor's estimate. A significant number of companies and agencies do not use Job Services to list their positions at all. The North Dakota Petroleum Council has encouraged oilfield companies to use the service, so that the number of job openings can be tracked, but many do not do so.
Dan Eberhart, CEO of Canary Crane, is among those not using the state's free service to list job openings. The wellhead company has headquarters in Denver, but has its largest location in Watford City. It also has two locations in Williston and another in Sidney. The Bakken represents about 40 percent of the company's business.
"I would hire another 100 employees today," Eberhart said. "I wouldn't need to even think about it. That is literally based on getting rid of my overtime. I had 8,400 hours of overtime in my last report. I just don't have enough people."
Employees only want overtime to a point, Eberhart said. In his experience, it's seen as beneficial from 60 to 75 hours. After that, the employees are missing the football game, as well as time with family, and they are tired.
"They want some overtime, but they don't want to only be at work," he said. "So we are focused on recruiting."
Eberhart has recently purchased 15 new pickup trucks, which he's hoping can serve as an incentive to recruit experienced people to his team.
"It works," Eberhart said. "It's the same pay, but you get a brand new pickup truck. It's like a signing bonus."
He's careful, however, how the new truck incentive gets used. Senior employees, he noted, already have new trucks. And none of the recently purchased trucks will be offered to entry-level positions.
"It's important not to be disrespectful to the existing team," Eberhart said.
Other things he's tried include using a temp service based in Bismarck, through which he gives people a guaranteed number of hours to come out to the Williston, Watford City and Sidney areas. But he's still short a lot of people.
That doesn't only mean lost income tax revenue. It's business he could be doing that isn't happening as well, some of which could involve sales tax or other state revenue sources.
"I'm turning down two out of three calls," Eberhart said, "because I don't have enough people. So that's my instant math. I'd take 100 in the Bakken without even thinking about it. I can get more equipment easily, and truthfully, I'd give up work I have in other places, because the pricing is better here in the Bakken. But it is about the people."
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford called it an alarming, but also amazing, problem to have. If the jobs bubble is just three times bigger than has been reported, that's around 40,000 jobs, he acknowledged. It's also an estimated $62.64 million in state tax revenue not being collected, as a direct result of unfilled positions.
"We know those numbers can climb that high," he said. "It happened in the last boom, and we know all the oil companies don't post their jobs with job service. It's not a perfect science, but we do know everywhere we go that there's a workforce shortage. And that's been true no matter what the size of the community, so it is definitely holding us back as a state."
The unfilled openings represent fewer wells being drilled or fracked, Sanford acknowledged, which plays into another source of state revenue - oil and gas taxes.
"It's less activity, and a slower construction process for new homes, public buildings and new gas plants to take off flared gas," Sanford said. "All of that is hampered and slowed down because of lack of workforce. Maybe, in some ways, it's an artificial leveling mechanism, so things don't boom up too high and come slamming back down again."
Easing the crunch, however, is a focal point for state efforts, and part of what the Main Street initiative is all about, Sanford said.
"We need people to settle in all parts of the state," he said. "We cannot be focused on just one community in the state. People need to find more open and inviting communities to settle in."
Among things the state has already been doing is focusing on its pockets of underemployed people. These could include people with disabilities or people who are undertrained, and getting them some training to take higher-paying jobs.
Out-of-state recruitment, in conjunction with state tourism efforts, has also encouraged visitors to consider staying more than just a week.
"Come see what it's like and maybe you will stay, because once people get here, they love it," Sanford said.
Healthy, vibrant downtowns in communities like Watford City, Dickinson, and Williston are crucial to that type of marketing, Sanford suggested.
"That makes the area more attractive to people coming in from outside the area," he said. "And we are going to try to dial that in a bit more. These efforts are spread out. We want to dial more into the workforce development side, and we will be bringing out more initiatives later as we go along."