Help really wanted

Help really wanted

Aug 18

Retailers cope with worker shortage

By Teri Finneman and Ryan Bakken – Forum Communications

WILLISTON, N.D. – Johnny Thompson spent eight months in Florida desperately searching for work after being laid off during the recession. A North Dakota friend advised him to move north, and Thompson tried his luck in Williston. He interviewed for a job at Home of Economy on a Tuesday. He started work the next day.

“This is a blessed place in America right now,” Thompson said.

A group of businessmen gather daily at the Castle Cafe in Williston. Photo by Eric Hylden, Grand Forks Herald

Thompson, 30, is among the out-of-state workers flocking to North Dakota in search of a paycheck – not necessarily in the oilfields, but largely because of the oil boom.

In July, the state had more than 11,000 job openings, Job Service North Dakota figures show. Throughout western North Dakota, “Help Wanted” signs hang outside businesses as retailers compete with the booming oil industry for workers.

More than 1,200 jobs are available in the Williston area, with the oil industry and related positions making up about 60 percent, said Shawn Wenko of Williston Economic Development.

It’s tough for retailers to compete with oil field wages, so businesses are being creative by offering flexible hours, sign-on bonuses and better benefits, he said.

“It’s just so fierce right now, and the labor pool is not a lot to draw from,” Wenko said. “So you get into a lot of competition going on out there.”

‘Can’t pay $20’

The state boasts the nation’s lowest unemployment rate, 3.3 percent.

Williston Pizza Hut Manager Jo Slater said the business is looking for help all the time. “All the older kids go to the oil fields, so we get the younger ones,” he said. “And younger kids like to show up when they want to show up, so they don’t last long.”

Brian Bolinske, pharmacist and owner of the downtown Service Drug, would hire six part-time clerks if he could find them. But $8 to $10 per hour isn’t attracting applicants.

Dennis Zietz, manager of Food Pride in Stanley, delivers food to the EOG man camp located north of town. Photo by David Samson, The Forum

“It’s hard to find them because we don’t pay $20 an hour,” he said. “We pay more than retail elsewhere, but we can go only so much above that.”

Howard Klug at the El Rancho motel also sees the effects of the worker shortage. “You hire people who show up one day, then are gone because there are four or five jobs that they think are better,” he said.

Because of the shortage of dishwashers, cooks and housekeepers, the 92-room El Rancho has been unable to expand or provide other services to handle the demand. It has eased the problem by hiring workers from Brazil, China and the Ukraine on six-month visas.

“They show up for work because they have to,” Klug said.

‘I need eight pizzas’

Every new oil rig creates 60 to 80 jobs in the area, making it difficult to keep up, said Tom Rolfstad, executive director of Williston Economic Development.

A lack of housing in the area affects the ability of businesses to attract workers and their families, he said. Spouses left behind in other communities aren’t available to help with the worker shortfall in the oilproducing counties. Tioga businesses face the same issues.

Tina Houim of the Sportsman Café, said her employees can’t find affordable housing, leaving them struggling to find shelter.

Her business is among those with a “Help Wanted” sign. With oil workers around, there often are big to-go orders to fill, such as eight pizzas or 20 cheeseburgers, making down time scarce.

With more work and less help, “you just gotta try to be here as much as you can,” Houim said.

Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle said the state is working on work force and housing studies to help the oilproducing areas. About 80 employers are being surveyed to determine their worker needs and what they anticipate housing needs will be.

In the meantime, Tioga Community Development Coordinator Kathy Jorgenson keeps busy with a steady flow of inquiring developers in her office.

“It’s something that overwhelms us,” Jorgenson said. “We have people constantly coming in, wanting to know where there’s lots to build, what the zoning is, how they can go about building houses.”

Jobs in Dickinson

Minot and Dickinson also feel the crunch. There are more than 500 job openings in Minot, according to Job Service. Sen. Bob Horne, D-Minot, said there are “Help Wanted” signs up and down Broadway.

Lexi Sebastian, executive director of the Dickinson Area Chamber of Commerce, counts more than 1,000 employment opportunities in the southwest’s eight-county region.

Employers outside the oil industry are trying to stress personal benefits – such as being home every night – to attract workers, if they can’t compete with oil wages.

“Businesses have to be smart,” Sebastian said. “How far do you stretch to be that competitive?”

Back in Tioga, Tim Joyce of Tioga Drug said he tries to be flexible with work hours and tries to provide a good working environment to stay competitive.

When he bought the business in 1987, Tioga was losing businesses and people, with no sign of recovery. Now, he sees young people returning to his hometown, which is booming once again.

“I’m working harder than ever,” Joyce said. “But I’m not going to complain.”

Video: Oil boom creates competition for employees

The writers are at tfinneman@forumcomm.com and rbakken@gfherald.com