“If you don’t like it you can just leave.” My uncle had heard enough.
It was the early 1990s, and my cousin and I were complaining about the lack of things to do in Bismarck. We were both taken aback by what he said and the tone in which he said it. But that was the way we saw it. Work opportunities were limited, with the majority of jobs being in the service industry. Cold winters meant some work was seasonal. The town all but shut down by 6 p.m. on weekdays, and weekends were uneventful. The internet was not yet readily available and painfully slow.
At about the same time, North Dakota was losing its younger population. People were leaving the state for more attractive job opportunities. This would be an important moment for Bismarck. The city was able to bring in Sykes Inc., which built a building here and promised hundreds of new jobs in their customer support center. It was successful in hiring many of the 20-somethings that would have otherwise left. Some went on to have long careers in Bismarck that began at Sykes. I was one of them.
I was hired for customer support on Gateway computers. But more than that, it was a great learning experience. The work was interesting and challenging, and the pay was good -- the most I had been paid so far in my young career. In less than six months, I was promoted to “leader” and I gained confidence in abilities I did not really know I had. This was the foundation for my work in this industry for the past 25-plus years.
North Dakota’s growth rate is the lowest it has been in years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency also notes that a lot of people are moving. U-Haul has interesting information based on where their vehicles go. The pandemic apparently is changing the employment landscape, with more people working from home and reevaluating their living situation. What could this mean for North Dakota?
I encountered a conversation recently that caught me by surprise. The topic was moving -- as in, I am so sick of Bismarck I am ready to pack up and leave. But unlike the '90s, the reasons were not lack of opportunities or potential for growth but more about the political discourse the last couple of years. Intertwined with arguments over political ideology were sometimes blatant views on racism, sexism, diversity and tolerance. These are things that a shiny, new building will not solve. I suppose the response could be similar to what my uncle said three decades ago: “If you don’t like it you can just leave.”
We all have the freedom to make choices in our lives, to be able to love where we live and live where we love. It is a new era; let’s try to keep Bismarck a place where all people want to stay.
The occasional musician, songwriter, comedian and traveler, Robert Dixon lives in Bismarck with his wife and has four grown children.