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Workforce shortages, due to North Dakota’s low unemployment rate, was a main topic of discussion at this year’s Economic Outlook Forum, hosted Wednesday by the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC.

“We have quite a few more jobs open than we have people to fill them,” said House Speaker Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck, one of three participants in a legislative panel discussion. “We need more workers and we need more trained workers.”

Several pieces of legislation are being considered this session, he said, to help draw young people to the state to further their education, with the hope that they’ll stay long term.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, who also sat on the panel, said he feels “very strongly” that North Dakota needs more career academies, as well as more career and technical education offerings.

“Career and tech — that’ll be the new ‘Prairie Dog’ for me moving into the next session,” he said.

Creating “livable communities” is important to attracting and retaining good employees, according to House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, the third panelist.

“What is it that’s causing the people we’ve educated and invested in for 16 years through the K-16 system to go to Minneapolis or to Denver or to Chicago or elsewhere that we’re not able to retain them?” he said. “This is where the governor’s Main Street Initiative really plays in … how do we create communities that people want to live?”

An industry panel discussion, featuring Chris Baumgartner, of Basin Electric Power Cooperative, David Ripplinger, of North Dakota State University, Kurt Schley, of CHI St. Alexius Health, and Jen Wilson, of Kirkwood Mall, was also part of the half-day event, which drew in a crowd of 285.

Due to the shortage of health care workers across the state, many hospitals are enlisting the help of travel nurses, whose wages are 35 to 40 percent more than a regular full-time nurse, according to Schley. He says sign-on and recruitment bonuses are helpful in attracting and retaining long-term staff.

The retail industry also struggles with workforce shortages, according to Wilson.

“Our attendants are constantly looking for the right associate to assist the customer and enough of those right associates. And that continues to be an ongoing struggle and challenge,” she said, noting the Kirkwood Mall employs 2,500 people during the average month and 5,000 at Christmastime.

Only 35 percent of 16- to 18-year-olds have a job, according to Wilson, who has been teaming up with local educators to help teach teens about the importance of working while in high school.

“Kids are not getting jobs until they’re well out of college and then, sometimes, their work experience doesn’t match their education, and they maybe can’t secure that top-level or middle-level position that they might think they’re ready for,” she said.

Keynote speaker Roger Tutterow, a professor of economics at Kennesaw State University who serves as director of its Econometric Center, says tight labor markets are a concern across every industry, as North Dakota is adding jobs faster than the labor market can keep up.

“Tight labor markets are going to be an albatross on the pace of economic growth going forward,” he said.

During the event, University of Mary Professor Karel Sovak unveiled the results of the 2019 Economic Outlook Survey he and his students conducted for the Bismarck Mandan Chamber EDC.

Seventy-two percent of the businesses that responded think they'll perform better in 2019 than they did this previous year, 8 percent expect to be worse off and 20 percent are predicting no change.

The top three factors survey respondents expect to adversely impact their business over the next year are attracting and retaining qualified employees, increasing competition and increasing raw material costs.

A strong local economy was listed as the top factor that positively affected the surveyed businesses’ performance in 2018.

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(Reach Cheryl McCormack at 701-250-8264 or cheryl.mccormack@bismarcktribune.com.)​

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General Assignment Reporter