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Patrick Springer, Published March 22 2009

West Fargo job sector hurting after cuts

The announcement last week that Trail King Industries was laying off 36 workers at its sprawling new plant seemed to be the latest in a string of misfortunes to strike West Fargo’s manufacturing sector.

Most notably, DMI had to cut its work force by 20 percent in January, thrusting 60 people out of work at the wind tower plant.

Earlier this month, Caterpillar, which has drive-train remanufacturing facilities in Fargo and West Fargo, announced it was temporarily shutting down operations and laying off an undisclosed number of employees.

That’s a lot for one city to absorb, but it might seem a likely consequence of West Fargo’s traditional ties to manufacturing.

Look more closely, however, and the numbers tell a different story, argues Dorinda Anderson, West Fargo’s economic development director.

For one thing, she said, Fargo hasn’t been immune to the slowdown in manufacturing, with Case New Holland announcing temporary shutdowns through April.

“I don’t think it has been hit any more than Fargo,” Anderson said of West Fargo. She concedes, however, that untold smaller companies have trimmed their staffs, and sometimes suppliers or sub-assemblers who lose work when a big plant slows or halts production.

Job Service North Dakota’s employment figures don’t distinguish jobs by industry category between Fargo and West Fargo, where manufacturing accounts for 8.6 percent of employment for the sister cities combined.

The latest figures show manufacturing is holding its own in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, where 9,300 people worked in manufacturing as of January – the same number as January 2008.

Manufacturing employment in the metro area during 2008 peaked at 9,900 from September through November, but declined this winter.

As a proportion of its work force, West Fargo appears to have a greater proportion of jobs connected to manufacturing than Fargo, said Michel Ziesch, a Job Service North Dakota analyst.

Most manufacturing jobs show up in the occupational category of production, transportation and material moving, he said, which accounts for 15.1 percent of employment in West Fargo, compared to 11.5 percent in Fargo.

But West Fargo is moving to increase its technology and office employment, the city’s latest phase in ongoing efforts to expand its job base, Anderson said.

“We know that we have to diversify our economy,” she said.

A new technology park will be built at Pioneer Plaza, with tenants including Marcil Technologies. The city is also building a new office park near the corporate headquarters of Bobcat. Titan Machinery will be the first tenant, she said.

The first phase of each development should be done by fall, and together the two efforts should bring 150 to 200 jobs to West Fargo in the first few years, Anderson said.

“We’re really excited about that in this community,” she said.

Brian Walters, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp., said the metro area so far has been able to weather the recession better than most areas.

Still, he is cautious about the numbers showing retention of manufacturing jobs, noting employment figures often lag conditions and require adjustments.

“I think it’s worse than what the figures say,” he said.

On the other hand, the massive federal stimulus program soon will pump money into infrastructure improvements, which will spur construction employment that will begin to ripple through the economy.

“I think you can expect a strong construction season here,” Walters said.

To continue to bolster its economy, he said, the metro area must continue to work to gain a foothold in growth industries, such as “smart technologies,” as well as vaccines and biotechnology.

To be competitive in those industries, Fargo-Moorhead as well as North Dakota and Minnesota must strengthen their education systems. That necessity is becoming better understood, Walters said.

“I think maybe we’re at the start of a discussion,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522