Cities of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks facing staffing challenges in public works, public safety departments
Public Works Operations Director Sharon Lipsh said along with having challenges filling mechanic positions other positions are proving difficult to hire, too, including in the Streets Department.
GRAND FORKS – For the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, staffing shortages in the public works and public safety departments are becoming common.
Grand Forks Public Works Operations Director Sharon Lipsh said along with challenges filling mechanic positions, the city also is having trouble finding people with a commercial driver's license for positions in the Streets Department.
Mechanic openings aren't new, Lipsh said. But new requirements for obtaining a CDL — including a change in how many training hours are needed before the permit test — have created workforce difficulties.
“So our concern is we’ve become the training ground for people getting CDLs,” she said. “They can come here, get their CDL, get the training and then it’s pretty easy to find a job somewhere else making more money.”
Though there can be higher paying jobs for mechanics in the private sector, Lipsh said there are benefits associated with working for the city.
“I think the things that set the city apart from the private world is our hours,” she said. “We generally work the same hours year-round with there being occasional overtime. Where you go work in the private industry, when you get to prime farm season, you’re at the mercy of the work you need to get done.”
At present, there are three open mechanic positions and three open positions in the streets division. The department is offering a $2,500 sign-on bonus for mechanics. Lipsh said tuition reimbursements are being considered.
In East Grand Forks, filling part-time seasonal employee positions has become more difficult as the number of applicants declines. Seasonal employees for the Public Works Department work throughout the summer months and help mow areas of the city.
East Grand Forks Public Works Supervisor Jeremy King said the seasonal positions tend to be filled by high school and college students as well as retirees.
“Before I started I guess there used to be quite a few retired people that worked down here in the summers mowing,” he said. “And then it kind of shifted and it was more high school kids and college kids. Now both pools have really dried up.”
Public Works Director Jason Stordahl said it’s been difficult to fill the positions for the past two years.
Part-time seasonal employees have been able to complete all of their mowing tasks in recent summers, but a rainy season can really boost grass growth. That means some full-time employees are shifted to mowing.
Public works isn’t the only department in East Grand Forks struggling to hire seasonal employees. Parks and Recreation Superintendent Reid Huttunen said the Parks Department also has faced difficulties hiring in both the summer and winter months.
Additionally, seasonals aren't the only challenging position to fill within the department.
"The number of applicants even for our full-time jobs the last couple of years has really declined," he said.
For a parks maintenance worker position, Huttunen said the department would get upwards of 20 applicants five years ago. Now around five to six applicants typically are received.
Also, both cities are facing staffing woes in public safety.
Conversations about the East Grand Forks Police Department’s staffing levels have been ongoing at a City Council level. Last year, council members approved hiring, relocation and retention bonuses for the department, which currently has two open officer positions.
More recently, East Grand Forks City Council members have considered creating a new position in the department. The position, being referred to as a “police recruit,” would be geared toward law enforcement students finishing their education and training.
Chief of Police Michael Hedlund has reiterated during council meetings that finding candidates has become difficult for departments and agencies across the region.
Last year, the Grand Forks Police Department was awarded a Community Oriented Policing Services Grant, and the department is looking to add an additional six sworn officers. The department is authorized to have 92 sworn officers along with three contract positions. GFPD Lt. Andrew Stein this week said the department is in the hiring process.
Grand Forks Human Resources Director Tangee Bouvette said incentives have been added to attract job-seekers to the city, including sign-on and moving bonuses. The city also conducts youth apprenticeships, internships and job shadowing events for college and high school students.
The city also is a partner of the Department of Defense SkillBridge program, which allows retiring military service members the opportunity to “intern” with the city during their last six months of service. At the end of the internship, they have the opportunity to be hired for the city.
One segment has been easier to fill, according to Bouvette: Department heads.
“We have had pretty good luck in recent history filling our department head positions, having a good, robust pool to choose from,” she said.
Murphy said East Grand Forks hasn’t had to fill a department head position in some time, but the process will be brought to light with his last day as city administrator approaching on April 21.
Both cities are conducting wage studies, which are set to be complete in April. For Grand Forks the Classification and Compensation Study will help update the city’s current classification and compensation system, which was implemented in 2002.
Findings from the studies will be brought back to both city councils at a later date, with any changes set to be implemented into the 2024 budget. Murphy said East Grand Forks plans to continue doing wage reviews and updates more often as things change with inflation.
“It’s more volatile than it has been in the past,” he said.