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North Dakota’s ‘Find the Good Life’ gets reprise as state vies for workers

At many levels -- the state of North Dakota and even the community of Greater Grand Forks -- efforts are being made to attract more workers.

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The first "Welcome to North Dakota: Be Legendary" billboard went up in western North Dakota along Interstate 94 near Beach, N.D. The billboards feature Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner's photo of Wind Canyon in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo courtesy of North Dakota Department of Transportation
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GRAND FORKS – When Eric Link got a chance for a big job in Grand Forks, he was already warm to the idea. He’d traveled to North Dakota a decade before on business, and said he was charmed by the state’s friendliness. He’d even mentioned to his wife, Laura, that it might be nice to live there one day.

Ten years later, with UND’s provost position open, that conversation suddenly had the chance to come true. The Links went online and looked at videos produced by “Grand Forks is Cooler” — an initiative that shares everything that makes Grand Forks a pleasant place to live, in those slickly produced videos, a website, a “welcoming guide” and more.

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“There was a moment about a year ago, slightly over a year ago, when we were sitting at the dinner table, and we were literally having dinner and I brought up my iPad and I opened up YouTube, and for our entertainment while we ate dinner, we watched six or so videos,” Eric Link said.

That wasn’t the deciding factor, of course — but Eric Link said it helped “solidify” his interest in becoming UND’s provost. He’s been in the new job since summer of last year, and his wife, Laura, is now a UND assistant professor of teaching and leadership.

It’s the perfect example of the Grand Forks is Cooler campaign, launched in 2018, doing what it was designed to do — giving outsiders a look at North Dakota that breaks through its popular reputation as a remote, ice-crusted landscape with little or nothing to do.

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Becca Cruger, the workforce development manager at the Grand Forks Economic Development Corporation — which spearheaded the campaign — said that’s not just inaccurate, but suggested it’s a stumbling block for a local economy. The local unemployment rate sits just above 2%, she said, and if there aren’t takers for jobs, then workers need to come from outside Grand Forks.

“Being able to recruit means we have to be our own cheerleaders. We have to tell our own stories,” she said. “We have to show why your family should move to the Grand Forks region.”

That pressure isn’t just on Grand Forks — it’s on much of North Dakota, too, and it’s why the state is soon launching its latest iteration of its “Find the Good Life” workforce marketing campaign. Katie Ralston Howe, director of the workforce division in the Department of Commerce, said a new version of the marketing project’s website will provide more connections and opportunities to bring people to the state.

“We’re in this moment where, for quite a few years now, North Dakota has had quite a few more jobs than people available to fill them. We need to recruit people to our state,” she said.

Ralston Howe said that the new version of the website will more heavily advertise the opportunity to get in touch with a state workforce professional who can help connect a hopeful new North Dakotan — or even someone at a North Dakota college — with answers to questions they might have about moving into a new role in the state. And the website, Ralston Howe said, will collect submitted data that will help the state track the interest of people who might want to know more about North Dakota.

“We won't be able to generate and track leads until they give us some information,” Ralston Howe said. “When I talk about the new version of the website being more active and having a call to action, that's what I mean, is there going to be multiple opportunities to say, ‘OK, you learned a little bit about us, tell us more about you.’”

The final budget for the project is still unclear. Ralston Howe noted that one component is $410,000 with the company that will help manage relationships and tracking data for interested workers. Asked about the rest, a Department of Commerce spokesperson said that, because the project “has not been formally announced or launched,” no firm budget has been set.

“The (breadth) of our initial work, updating the brand and content, is taking place as well as research leading up to the campaign roll out,” Kim Schmidt, the spokesperson, said in an email. “We expect to have an initial budget determined in the next month or so. “

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The project is an important one, Ralston Howe said — especially important for a state with thousands of open jobs and one trying to get an edge in the competition for new employees. She projects a June launch for the campaign.

“North Dakota is fighting for scarce resources. Almost every state is in this situation, where they have more jobs available than people to fill them, and North Dakota has been in that situation for years,” she said. “I started with (the Department of) Commerce two and a half years ago, and this is what we were talking about.”

Sam Easter is a freelance reporter who has been a regular contributor to the Herald since 2019. He covers a variety of topics, including government and politics.

In 2015, he joined the Herald’s staff as City Hall reporter, covering North Dakota politics at all levels and conducting Herald investigations through early 2018, when he began his freelancing career.

Easter can be reached at samkweaster@gmail.com or via Twitter via @samkweaster.
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