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Tracy Frank, Published December 29 2008

ND businesses, public officials seek to draw high-tech workers to state

North Dakota is changing its focus.

It’s no longer just about creating jobs, said Gov. John Hoeven. The bigger focus is recruiting, training and educating people to fill those jobs, he said.

“That means not only retaining them here, but also recruiting them from other states,” Hoeven said.

The only thing Mark Meadows knew about Fargo when he considered a job here was the city’s cinematic namesake.

It wasn’t an easy decision for Meadows and his wife, Kim, to move from Virginia, where their family lives. But Meadows’ chance to work for Microsoft Fargo was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, he said.

“I called a friend of mine who it turns out had actually lived here for a while … and he said if he had the opportunity, he would move back to Fargo in a heartbeat,” Meadows said.

Two and a half years later, Mark and Kim Meadows feel so welcomed in the community that it feels like family, he said.

North Dakota lawmakers and businesses are working on ways to lure more high-tech employees like Meadows from other states to fill a glut of vacant jobs.

As of Nov. 1, there were an estimated 159 applicants for 251 jobs in the computer and mathematical sector in the state, according to Job Service North Dakota. There were an estimated 165 applicants for 261 openings as of Dec. 1.

Two proposals are expected to surface in the 2009 Legislature that would help North Dakota students with college tuition. One is based on need; the other on merit.

Hoeven is proposing a $40 million needs-based tuition assistance program for North Dakota students.

Businesses are also boosting efforts to show potential employees what life is really like in North Dakota.

For the past two years, Brent Hitterdal has had trouble finding workers. He manages the Fargo office for Professional Advantage, a Microsoft Partner company based in Australia.

Hitterdal would advertise for a position and get only a few résumés.

“I hear the complaining about a lack of jobs that pay well and then I see a lack of résumés we get for positions,” Hitterdal said.

There are not enough people in the Fargo area with technical skills, he said.

Jobs have become more technical at Microsoft Fargo. While the company once could hire smart applicants and teach them the skills they needed, it now must find people with more education or experience.

“We’ve kind of tapped out what’s been in the local market,” said Wendy Hill, Microsoft Fargo staffing consultant.

The average salary for computer science workers is $23.95 an hour, or about $49,816 a year, according to Job Service North Dakota.

Probable causes

Part of the problem is that much of the Fargo-Moorhead area’s growth has been fueled by workers who move here from rural North Dakota, said Brian Walters, president of the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

“In a broader view of the work force, I think we see challenges to that, our abilities to sustain work-force growth and population growth as we exhaust past sources of population,” he said.

Another problem is that local universities were not producing as many computer science graduates as they once did.

After the dot-com stock bubble burst in the early 2000s, the number of students enrolling in computer-related fields dropped, said Ken Magel, North Dakota State University computer science department professor.

And after the surge of people hired to help companies’ technology departments prepare for the Y2K scare, there weren’t as many jobs available, said Dan Brekke, department chairman of Minnesota State University Moorhead’s computer science and information systems department.

“Students steered away from the computer science area, and I think parents probably steered their kids away,” Brekke said.

Turning tide

NDSU and MSUM have recently seen a huge increase in the number of undergraduate and graduate computer science students.

NDSU has 15 percent more computer science students today than it did three years ago. MSUM computer science enrollment has grown

50 percent over last year. The university also added a new computer information technology degree.

Computer science is the fourth-most in-demand degree, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, Brekke said.

“High school students are seeing this and they know this is a good area to get back into,” he said.

There remains a glitch when it comes to hiring international students, who make up roughly 20 percent of the undergraduates and

60 percent of graduate students in computer science at NDSU.

The H-1B visa program allows American companies to hire highly skilled foreign nationals to fill job vacancies. But there are not enough visas to meet the demand, said Ginny Terzano, Microsoft spokeswoman.

Shortages of work visas and green cards limit the ability of U.S. companies to innovate and compete, she said.

Because of the shortage, Microsoft Fargo lost a stellar software developer candidate 18 months ago to a Microsoft team in Canada.

“A female in a core tech role like that is incredibly rare,” said Katie Hasbargen, Microsoft Fargo senior communications manager. “It was a tragedy.”

Canada, Australia and the European Union have recently streamlined their visa requirements and are aggressively marketing their new programs to draw these high-tech workers away from the United States, Terzano said.

She said there’s also a misconception that moving business processes or services to another country is solely a result of cheap labor.

“It’s happening because we can’t get visas for these people who are just starting to work out of school,” Terzano said.

The Chamber of Commerce of Fargo Moorhead has been working to find out what can be done to keep qualified workers here, said David Martin, chamber president and chief executive officer.

“These are not people taking jobs away from somebody else,” he said. “There is just a short supply of some of these technical experts.”

Economic twist

In some ways, the current troubled economy is helping North Dakota companies.

Over the past few months, Intelligent InSites, a Fargo-based software company, has received a large number of high-quality applicants from outside the region, said Mark Rheault, president and CEO.

With the number of layoffs nationwide, Rheault said he now has the pick of the litter for higher-end positions.

Job cuts in the technology sector are on pace to reach the highest year-end total since 2003, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement consultancy that tracks job cuts.

Through Oct. 31, job cuts by firms in the telecommunications, electronics and computer industries totaled 140,422 – 31 percent more than the tech-sector job cuts announced in all of 2007, the consultancy stated in a news release.

At the current pace, the year-end total could reach 180,000, which would be the largest annual total since 2003 when technology firms announced 228,325 job cuts, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

People who used to live in Fargo are also looking to move back, Rheault said.

That includes Tom Bowman, an Ada, Minn., native who recently returned to the area from Iowa to work at Professional Advantage.

One problem employers are finding is that because of the housing slump, relocation takes time.

“Nobody’s looking to make a quick move,” Rheault said. “Everybody’s looking at doing that over a three- to six-month period at the very least.”

Some people commute on a weekly basis, stay in hotels, and fly back and forth, he said.

Bowman lived with his parents and his wife stayed in Iowa for two months because they had trouble selling their house.

Selling ND jobs

It’s not as hard to convince prospective employees to move here, as many North Dakotans assume, Hill said.

She said in the past six months, Microsoft Fargo has hired and relocated people from Canada, Mexico and 17 states outside North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

Microsoft is creating a recruiting Web site that will highlight the Microsoft Fargo campus, people who work there, and what the community is like.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce also used a Web site to target prospective employees. It launched a job-listing site that targeted people who visited the state over Thanksgiving.

There were 66 participating companies, 390 employment and internship opportunities posted, and 3,868 visitors to the site, according to the department.

The Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp. has started giving area tours to people who interview for jobs with local companies. People are often surprised by what the area has to offer, said Tifanie Gelinske, EDC work-force recruitment coordinator.

The area’s restaurants, retail outlets, short commutes, low cost of living, low crime rates and quality education are all selling points, Walters said.

The state also has work-force development programs in place such as information technology scholarships, tax credits for companies that hire technology workers and work-force training funds.

Some lawmakers want to entice people to move here with affordable or free college tuition.

State Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, headed the interim Workforce Committee that will introduce a bill to help pay college tuition for North Dakota students who meet certain academic requirements or enroll in a two-year career or technical program in fields with high job demand. The bill would also give state income tax breaks for qualifying residents.

“If we set ourselves apart from many other states in the Upper Midwest, a program such as this will attract more families,” Grindberg said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526