FARGO – In a few months’ time, the flat fields here will be teeming with heavy machinery moving tons of earth to protect cities from the scourge of flooding.
But it takes more than machines. It will take people. Lots of people reviewing, designing, and managing the nation’s first flood control project. More people operating the heavy equipment, building the bridges that span the 50-mile bypass canal, and the gated structures that regulate the flow of the raging water.
The Red River Valley Alliance, the international consortium of companies that will build the canal, bridges and aqueducts, will have to hire 800 workers when construction peaks in 2024. Work on diversion control structures will coincide with work on a 22-mile embankment.
It won’t be easy to find all of these qualified people. In the Fargo-dominated region of southeast North Dakota, there were 6,569 job vacancies in November. Fargo’s October unemployment rate, the latest available, was 1.8%.
The hiring surge, which will intensify in the spring, comes after Amazon opens its new warehouse in Fargo that needs 1,000 employees and advertises fast food restaurants for jobs at $ 17 or $ 18 an hour, along with sign- on bonuses.
The need for so many workers comes at a time when labor markets have been turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. All regions of the country are short of labor and compete for labor.
All of this makes Joel Paulsen, general manager of the Metro Flood Diversion Authority, a little concerned. His organization, a partnership of local governments overseeing the $ 3.2 billion flood control project, has tried three unsuccessful attempts to hire a finance director.
“We are in a difficult position here with the labor market in Fargo because of the low unemployment rate,” he said.
The Red River Valley Alliance’s joint construction company, ASN Constructors, will recruit 200 professional positions, including a variety of engineering, management and support roles. There are also around 800 construction workers.
In order to fill these highly skilled positions, you need to cast a wide recruitment network.
“Fargo-Moorhead no longer competes for labor on a regional basis,” said Paulsen. “We compete for labor at the national level.”
It will take a tremendous amount of sales and marketing to get people to the project and fill any vacancies employers have been desperately trying to fill for months.
“We have to publicize the opportunities here in Fargo and North Dakota,” said Paulsen. “We have to hire more people”
Some employers already fear that the already difficult hiring environment will get worse once ASN steps up its hiring efforts, said Carey Fry, director of the Fargo Workforce Center for Job Service North Dakota.
Job Service North Dakota will be involved nationwide in filling apprenticeships and other on-the-job training opportunities that the diversion project will create, she said.
Fry has seen signs in restaurants offering workers $ 17 an hour. Paulsen said he saw signs in fast food restaurants that sell for $ 18 an hour.
“Those wages have skyrocketed since the epidemic,” Fry said.
The urgent need for labor is reminiscent of labor demand in North Dakota’s Oil Patch during the boom – but without the national public magnet that helped attract people, she said.
During the boom, the state ran an advertising campaign entitled “Find the Good Life in North Dakota”.
“You can bet we’ll be doing more of this in the coming months,” said Fry.
ASN uses the Internet to post job vacancies with current vacancies including utility engineer, surveyor manager, document control manager, road engineer, quality assurance manager, construction planner, safety manager, civil engineer, geotechnician, and computational planning operator.
“The workforce we have now is very specialized, mostly in the engineering sector,” said Alan Gemmel, interim HR manager at ASN.
Given the tight labor market environment across the country, ASN needs to be flexible and innovative, he said.
“We’ll have to adapt over time,” said Gemmel. âIt’s not an easy time for anyone in HRâ, short for Human Resources.
ASN is required to offer apprenticeships to 20% of its workforce so that workers can be trained on the job.
“These are job opportunities for people to learn a new trade and take it with them when they’re gone,” Gemmel said, adding that construction is expected to take five years.
Fortunately, he added, “The Fargo-Moorhead area has tremendous technical and professional training.” ASN is also working with universities in North Dakota and Minnesota to build a talent pipeline.
“We are still in the process of developing our strategy,” and we are working with Flint Group on a marketing campaign, Gemmell said, adding that the effort will involve a tremendous amount of face-to-face interaction with schools in the area.
The hiring process will follow a “bell curve” that gradually climbs until it peaks and then tapers, Gemmell said. “April is really the time we are preparing for the utility relocation,” he said. The surveying work has started.
ASN – a partnership of ACCIONA, Shikun & Binui, and the North American Construction Group – is not out to poach workers from employers in the area, Gemmell said. Once construction is complete, the Red River Valley Alliance will operate the flood control system for at least 30 years, so a long-term view is required, he said.
“We’re part of the community,” said Gemmell.
Although Gemmell declined to say what wage levels ASN offers, he said salary and benefits reflect the challenging environment.
âThe market is what it is,â he said. âWe’re all fighting for people right now. That will stimulate the wage discussion. “
The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce and partners, including Greater Fargo / Moorhead Economic Development Corp., have been aggressively recruiting for several years – an endeavor boosted by the diversion.
Given the need to fill so many professional positions, the Chamber created a concierge service to help managers and spouses move with “bespoke introductions” to the community.
Ambassadors will introduce newcomers to the community. Ads featuring Fargo as a welcoming place to live and work target the Twin Cities and later expand to other markets and welcome parties that are “almost a community roadshow” ensure newcomers are aware of the common good said Shannon Full, President and Chairman of the Chamber.
The chamber is not only working on attracting talent, but also on building a “hidden talent” pool, she said. “It will take several facets to address.”
Failure to fill the required positions would not only make the diversion difficult, but it is also the main obstacle to the growth of the metropolitan economy.
“It’s really imperative that organizations like ours and the EDC get this right,” said Full.
In October, the Chamber launched Ignite FMWF, a recruiting initiative designed to help match job seekers with employers. The initiative’s website features a job board of vacancies and more than 1,200 videos to help students and job seekers discover opportunities, as well as a library of industry-developed education and training materials.
“It’s a really dynamic system,” said Full.
One of the challenges will be to make Fargo-Moorhead stand out when so many areas are competing for labor. A greater effort to attract talent is imminent.
“This is going to be the next big thing,” said Full. “We assume that in a few months, we will bring this to market in a few months.”
In January or February, corporate leaders will bring back investors to fund the $ 4 million Fueling Our Future campaign aimed at increasing the region’s talent pool, wealth and quality of life.
âThis work isn’t cheap, but it’s badly needed,â said Full. North Dakota has $ 15 million available for regional labor grants, of which approximately $ 4 million could go to the Fargo area.
Convenience and quality of life considerations are becoming increasingly important when it comes to recruiting, said Joe Raso, president and CEO of Greater Fargo / Moorhead Economic Development Corp.
Fargo has a Why Live In Fargo-Moorhead website to promote the area’s job opportunities and quality of life, including recreation, arts & entertainment, housing, education and health care.
Local employers are aware of the need to increase wages and benefits, said Raso. âThey do,â he said, adding as an example that some local manufacturers have increased their base pay by 30%.
The current recruiting and promotion efforts are an extension of the work that has been done for years, Raso said.
“That conversation started years ago,” he said. âWhat is different now is the pressure that can be felt holistically. I think in the next six months, when we go into next summer, the things we have been working on over the last year will bear fruit. “
However, Raso agreed with Full that successfully addressing the labor force challenges will require significant investment, with the public and private sectors working together. “We are realistically talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars annually,” he said.
The future is bright and Fargo has no shortage of selling points, added Raso.
âThe good news is we don’t sell smoke or mirrors,â he said. “It’s a great place.”