Weather Forecast



In the Instrumentation and Control lab at Bismarck State College (shown here), students learn how to install, test, calibrate and maintain computerized control systems. Graduates can start at $25-$30 an hour or more, the college reports. IMAGE: BSC

The last mile: How agencies and companies are connecting workers with energy jobs

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Time was, a student could graduate from high school on Sunday, then wake up on Monday to the promise of a good-paying job.

And a big part of people’s yearning for the Good Old Days is the memory of those jobs.

But in the energy industry (among other fields) in the Prairie Business region, these are the good old days. With one key difference: today, the graduation likely must be from technical school.

That stipulated, the description is spot-on. Graduates in 2018 absolutely can pick up their certificate or associate’s degree on Sunday, then wake up on Monday to the promise of an exceptional job.

“We are seeing a high demand in all sectors of the industry,” said Alicia Uhde, department chair for the National Energy Center of Excellence at Bismarck State College in Bismarck, N.D.

The center trains students to be instrumentation and control technicians, renewable energy technicians and lineworkers, among other fields.

“Graduates of some programs are being offered $25 to $30 an hour with no problem, and some are getting even more,” Uhde said.

Minnesota tells a similar tale, said Jeremy Hanson Willis, deputy commissioner for workforce development in the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

“We don't have the oil fields of North Dakota, but energy – especially clean energy – has been a rapidly growing sector in Minnesota,” Willis said.

“We now have more than 57,000 clean energy jobs. … Our clean energy sector has grown 5.3 percent since 2015, adding more than 2,800 jobs. That’s 3.8 times faster than other areas of the Minnesota economy.”

The downside of this bounty, of course, is the sand that the labor shortage throws into the gears of growth. As Gov. Doug Burgum said in his 2018 State of the State address, if all of the state’s jobs were filled, it would be like adding a city the size of Jamestown to North Dakota.

So, what kinds of things are being done? What kinds of programs are being offered to help workers connect with training, and employers to find and hire those newly skilled workers?

Job service offices

For both employers and workers, Job Service North Dakota, Minnesota DEED and the South Dakota Department of Labor and Regulation are great places to start.

That observation may come as a surprise. “Often when people think of Job Service, they think of unemployment,” said Paula Hickel, Job Service North Dakota’s workforce center manager in Williston, N.D.

“They think that when you’re unemployed or laid off, this is where you go. Which is fine, but we’re so much more than that.”

In all three states, the offices have evolved to become workforce centers, offering comprehensive services to employers and employees alike.

“So for employers, we have a number of things that they can do for free,” Hickel said.

That includes searching lists of job seekers who’ve registered with the agency, as well as posting job openings. “And you’d be surprised how many people look at those openings, including people who are comfortably employed but looking for a change,” Hickel said.

Employers also can host job fairs and other recruitment activities at the centers. They can learn about incentives for setting up apprenticeships, setting up internships and hiring from targeted groups.

They can learn about little-known efforts such as the Federal Bonding Program. The program offers free insurance that protects employers against employee theft, MN DEED’s website notes. It covers otherwise hard-to-insure workers such as those with criminal records or a history of drug abuse.

“Nationally, more than 40,000 bonds have been issued,” reports the website,

“Only about 1 percent of those bonds have had claims filed against them.”

All that and more is available to employers, and the services are free.

As Hickel put it, “there’s really no good reason not to use Job Service.”

Skills training

Meanwhile, job seekers will find services that start with resume crafting – “For the most part, people stink at resumes,” Hickel said with a laugh. “And that’s true whether you’re a brand-new worker or a professional with a career. Everybody can benefit from some resume coaching” – and extend, in some cases, all the way to tuition grants for skills training.

Don’t misunderstand. While customers often stop in to ask about, say, free Commercial Driver’s License training, the tuition help is not available to all – or even most, Hickel said.

Money is tight, and what dollars are available tend to be targeted at disadvantaged groups such as people with disabilities.

But that shouldn’t stop people from seeking training for skilled jobs. For one thing, many employers these days will help pay for training or train workers on the job.

Moreover, while schools such as Bismarck State offer numerous scholarships, state residents who pay full tuition will be set back only about $4,000 a year.

“It’s really affordable, especially when you think about the kinds of jobs people are getting after graduation,” said Uhde, the BSC department chair.

“I don’t often talk to somebody who chooses not to come to Bismarck State because they can’t afford it.”

Local programs

Then there are efforts such as the McKenzie County (N.D.) Skills Initiative – a partnership between the University of Mary, Williston State College, TrainND Northwest and the Small Business Development Center, all of which now are offering classes in Watford City’s new Rough Rider Center – and the Minnesota Chamber’s partnership with the Winona, Minn., chamber, which is introducing high-school students to the 100-plus manufacturers that call Winona home.

All things considered, the current boom in the energy economy feels calmer than the 2010-15 version did, said Hickel of Job Service North Dakota in Williston.

That’s partly because of the programs mentioned above, partly because of the housing and highways that have been built and partly because the crime rate seems to have fallen, among other factors.

“But I’m starting to notice that Wal-Mart is having a hard time keeping its shelves stocked again,” she said.

“So they’re struggling to find workers, too.” And so begins a new chapter in the region’s history, she said.

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business