There’s no debate about it: the U.S. birth rate is in decline.
And for Grand Forks, that’s another reminder that big questions about the economy — like the size of the local workforce — can’t be solved by waiting and hoping.
In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control's statistical arm announced the birth of about 3.6 million babies born in the U.S. last year. That’s the fewest since the late 1970s, and it continues a six-year downward trend.
In North Dakota, UND economist David Flynn now says the story is similar. The number of women of child-bearing age began leveling off in 2015, at just below 150,000; but there’s been a drop in births since then, falling from nearly 12,000 annually to close to 10,000.
“The key here is that you've got to bring people in,” he said. “From a labor force perspective, don't expect that you're going to have this swell of young people down the line."
Precisely why birth rates are falling is difficult to pinpoint. The coronavirus could be part of the most recent statistics; but while data shows that many women are delaying pregnancy, that phenomenon can be linked to anything from the cost of American childcare to parents’ desire to focus on careers and education.
The ultimate effect is that communities like Grand Forks are not expected to grow substantially on their own. They’ll have to win new residents the hard way: through the economic strategies city leaders are now hard at work trying to implement.
City Administrator Todd Feland said a key city goal is retaining people in Grand Forks, lest they move away for another job offer or the promise of greener pastures. And, to hear him tell it, many of the city’s top projects help support that goal — like hopes for a tech accelerator in the Herald building or efforts to build a new career and technical education center.
“We’ve got to do everything possible in that vein,” Feland said.
The regional labor force is one of the most important statistics for gauging the community’s success here. Federal statistics show that the region is far off its 2017 peak of about 56,000 workers, and a full 2.3% lower than the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
That’s before accounting for Grand Forks’ far slower growth rate in recent decades. While regions like Fargo and Bismarck have grown, Grand Forks’ current workforce is roughly the size it was in the early 2010s, the 2000s and the 1990s.
Just as important as retaining workers is the community’s focus on bringing people into the city. Keith Lund, who heads the regional Economic Development Corporation, said immigration — one of the country’s historical growth drivers — is a key factor, helping supply the labor force needed to grow the community and the economy. It’s a charged topic nationally, he said, but an important one nonetheless.
Lund is heartened by local programs meant to boost the community’s economy, like the “Grand Forks is Cooler” campaign meant to advertise the city and its amenities, or the Northern Valley Career Expo.
And he knows it takes elbow grease to keep growing.
“It’s no secret that, you know, Grand Forks, North Dakota and the United States really has been on a trend over the last several decades of lower and lower birth rates, and other parts of the world have a greater birth rate,” Lund said. “But we are likely not going to grow organically into prosperity, from a labor standpoint.”