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JOB GROWTH: Equal among its peers

The people at Sure Foot Corp. have been designing and making shoe accessories since 1984, but it was three years ago that the Grand Forks-based company really hit a growth spurt.

The people at Sure Foot Corp. have been designing and making shoe accessories since 1984, but it was three years ago that the Grand Forks-based company really hit a growth spurt.

In that period, it increased its work force by more than 60 percent, built a 4,500-square-foot addition to its plant and grew sales by at least 10 percent each year. Its products, today, are found from small retailers to the likes of Wal-Mart and the home-shopping channel QVC.

Brothers Jon and Van Larson, the company founders, said they've been very aggressive both in seeking out new accounts and introducing new products to the market.

While big manufacturers like LM Glasfiber and Cirrus Design grab the headlines when it comes to jobs, smaller firms like Sure Foot are making their own contributions. All are at the forefront of a job growth trend that, at least in the percentage increase, is the equal of any of the Grand Forks' regional peers.

On the upside, this should put to rest once and for all envious comparisons with Fargo, Bismarck and Sioux Falls.


"The message to the community is, 'Don't look over your shoulder to Fargo,'" said Klaus Thiessen, the head of Grand Forks' Economic Development Corp.

On the downside, job growth appears to have outpaced the number of people to fill those jobs.

"It's a very tight labor market at this point in time," said Tom Fetch, in charge of business services at Job Service North Dakota's Grand Forks office. As of the end of October he said, he had 1,962 job listings, but only 1,000 resumes on file.

Fargo who?

For years now, Grand Forks residents have compared their lot to those living in other cities. When property taxes come up, they say the mill levies for Fargo and Bismarck are lower. When economic development comes up, they say Fargo and Bismarck are growing faster. A few years ago, city leaders even formed a committee to find out if Grand Forks is as business friendly as Fargo.

But the numbers show a different picture.

"Our numbers are relatively just as strong as Fargo and, in some cases, stronger," Thiessen said.

For example, in September, the number of people employed in Grand Forks grew by 2.6 percent compared with the same month the year before. For Fargo, that figure was 1.1 percent.


In fact, the only month this year in which Fargo's growth rate was higher was January.

Blue-collar growth

What's great about this trend is a lot of it is coming from the manufacturing sector, the sector most responsible for brining new dollars into the regional economy. Sectors such as retail generally re-circulate existing dollars.

"We've seen pretty dramatic growth in the last two to three years," Fetch said. A lot of that, he noted, came from wind turbine-blade maker LM Glasfiber and aircraft maker Cirrus Design.

Since 2003, manufacturing jobs as a percentage of all local jobs have grown while that of other major sectors hospitality, construction, health care, retail and government have shrunk. That's according to annual data from Job Service North Dakota, which does not include 2006 data.

Manufacturing jobs made up 4.9 percent of all jobs in 2003 but had grown to 6.2 percent in 2005. Compare this to health care: 15.4 percent in 2003 and 14.2 percent in 2005. Or government: 22.6 percent in 2003 and 21.8 percent in 2005.

Wages up

The only problem with all this growth is it's making it slightly harder for employers to find employees.


At Sure Foot, for example, general manager Jim Melland said it takes a bit longer to fill open positions than a few years ago because the number of applicants is smaller.

From his seat at Job Service, Fetch said he's seeing that happening with other manufacturers as well. "There's a lot of movement within the industry," he said. "It's not unusual for someone to go across town for a $1 difference in pay or a better benefit package."

He knows this, he said, because when he hears of one employer offering a really good package, he starts seeing job openings at other employers.

It's not just manufacturing, either. With manufacturers offering more jobs with better compensation, workers in other sectors flock to them and leave the other sectors in want of employees.

"It's kind of the pecking order," Fletch said. "The lowest one in the pecking order is going to be the one hurting the most."

That's a good thing for Grand Forks area workers, who have long complained that their wages are lower than those of their counterparts in rival cities.

Still, there's some catching up to do. In August, wages in Grand Forks County were 6.2 percent higher than the same month the year before. But in Cass County, where Fargo is, wages went up 6.6 percent.

Tran reports on City Hall and economic development issues. Reach him at (701) 780-1248, or ttran@gfherald.com , or see his blog at www.areavoices.com/gfhcitybeat .

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