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Traill County looks overseas for solutions to workforce shortages

Like agricultural businesses, non-agricultural businesses can also hire temporary foreign workers with a similar type of visa, an option the Traill County Economic Development Commission is now exploring as it tries to help local businesses that are short on workers.

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Jim Murphy is Traill County Economic Development Commission executive director.
Grand Forks Herald file photo
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HILLSBORO, N.D. — As the demand for workers in manufacturing, food service, transportation and construction grows in Traill County economic leaders are taking notes from agriculture for a possible solution to fill open jobs: hiring temporary foreign workers.

Foreign workers have long been coming to North Dakota for temporary agricultural work, said Jim Murphy, executive director of the Traill County Economic Development Commission. The workers are hired by farmers to help during the growing season and harvest.

“Everybody with a tractor knows about that,” he said.

Like agricultural businesses, non-agricultural businesses can also hire temporary foreign workers with a similar type of visa, an option the Traill County EDC is now exploring as it tries to help local businesses that are short on workers.

“We’re exploring any and all options for workforce in light of the exceptionally difficult workforce scarcity, the dearth of workforce, if you will,” said Murphy. “We’re not the agency, we’re just bringing in a company to help educate some of our employers about the options.”

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Murphy is working with Labor Inbound LLC, a Devils Lake business that helps farmers apply for visa programs for temporary foreign workers, to figure out what Traill County businesses need to qualify for foreign help.

At present, says Christo Grobbelaar, owner of Labor Inbound, he primarily helps farmers secure agricultural workers from overseas, but as demand for workers increases across other industries, he is looking at expanding his services.

Grobbelaar, originally from South Africa, first came to the United States on an H-2A visa, the visa program for temporary agricultural workers. He worked in the Devils Lake area, where he has now settled down and runs Labor Inbound to help connect American farmers and foreign workers using his connections in South Africa.

While his company is gearing up to help non-agricultural businesses qualify to hire temporary foreign workers, getting workers through the H-2B visa program, which is for non-agricultural businesses and workers, is more competitive than its agricultural counterpart, says Grobbelaar.

For agricultural temporary workers, the H-2A program is uncapped, meaning an unlimited number of foreign workers can come to the U.S. with an H-2A visa. For non-agricultural temporary workers, the number of visas awarded in the H-2B visa program each year is capped by U.S. Congress. Congress has set the H-2B visa cap at 66,000 per fiscal year, with 33,000 workers beginning employment in the first half of the fiscal year and the other 33,000 in the second half of the fiscal year.

If a business owner applies to hire workers through the H-2B visa program and does not qualify, they have to wait until the next round of visas are issued to try again, a minimum of six months. For both the H-2B and H-2A visa program, once a business qualifies, it takes additional time to get workers to the United States. Workers need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor, the state work agency in the state they will be working in and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which Grobbelaar says can take around three months.

“It’s definitely not a quick fix system,” said Grobbelaar. “But once you’re on the program and loaded into the system, it’s kind of easy to keep the ball going year after year.”

Even though the process is time consuming, complex and new to many industries in the area, it could help local businesses, said Murphy, especially with the expertise of a business like Labor Inbound to help guide the process.

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“We’re trying to be creative and come up with solutions for the people that we work for, and this is another brick in that wall,” he said.

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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