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Christopher Bjorke, Forum Communications, Published September 08 2012

Grand Forks wages sixth in North Dakota, behind Fargo, Bismarck

GRAND FORKS – The typical employee in Grand Forks works in a place that provides medical care or an education. Or he sells things in a store. Or if his job is to make things, he probably makes meals.

And he earns $35,720 per year, the average wage for jobs in Grand Forks, according to Job Service North Dakota. That is below the state average of $38,127 and sixth among cities in the state.

The Grand Forks Herald has been examining some of the costs of the necessities of daily life: housing, energy, health care and groceries. People’s ability to afford those expenses is of course determined by the money they earn, and in Grand Forks, incomes lag behind comparable places in the region.

A 2010 United Way survey of residents, community leaders and service providers found that 41 percent of residents identified “finding a job with a living wage” a critical problem in the community.

“We need to raise the entire level of income, wages in our community,” said United Way President Pat Berger.

Student and workers

Incomes in Grand Forks cannot be tied to a single factor, but the reasons can be found in the area’s mix of employers and demographics.

The largest employers in town are UND, Altru Health System and Grand Forks Public Schools, according to Job Service. That combination is not unusual compared to other places in North Dakota. The top three employers in Fargo and West Fargo are North Dakota State University, Sanford Medical Center and Fargo Public Schools. In Bismarck and Mandan, they are the area’s two hospitals and the Bismarck school district.

What might make Grand Forks different is the size of its student population relative to the area’s size.

“Part of the issue is that students make up a larger percentage of the population in Grand Forks than in Bismarck or Fargo,” wrote David Flynn, chair of UND’s Economics Department, in an email. “As such, there is a larger percentage seeking temporary employment while in school and a higher percentage that may be interested in entry level jobs upon graduation.”

Students tend to work in lower-paying jobs in retail and hospitality, jobs common among “people who are either beginning their careers or looking for flexibility,” said Michael Ziesch, a labor market analyst with Job Service.

Student employees may also change jobs often as they balance their studies with their work, something retail jobs tend to be more flexible with.

“It’s a job, not a career,” Ziesch said.

The average annual wages for retail jobs in Grand Forks, according to Job Service, was $23,620 in 2010.

An industry with similar employment is accommodations and food services, which paid an average wage of $12,539 in 2010.

Together, both industries account for 27.6 percent of jobs in Grand Forks. In Fargo-West Fargo, the proportion of those jobs is 22 percent. In Bismarck-Mandan, they made up 22.2 percent of jobs.

For workers in Grand Forks’ biggest industry the wages are higher. In 2010, employees in health care and social assistance made $43,101 a year. The highest-paying industry in town is utilities, paying $83,716 a year.

Lower averages

While Grand Forks skews toward lower-paying industries such as retail and restaurants, average wages within industries tend to be lower compared to other places. In Fargo, average wages in retail were $25,047 per year in 2010, $1,427 more than in Grand Forks. In Bismarck-Mandan, the industry paid an average $25,367.

Grand Forks’ largest industries also paid slightly less than they do in the state’s main cities. Health and social assistance employers in Fargo paid an average of $46,751 per year, or $3,650 more than in Grand Forks. In Bismarck-Mandan, the average was $43,624.

According to Flynn, Grand Forks lacks some of the competition that can push up wages.

“In Fargo and Bismarck, there is significantly more competition, across almost all business types,” he wrote. “That leads to more job opportunities and more mobile workers, likely forcing employers to pay more for the workers they really want.”

However, Grand Forks has an edge in wages for state government workers, which includes UND, accounting for nearly 10 percent of its jobs. State employees made an average of $48,172 in 2010. In Fargo, the average wage was $47,969 and in Bis-marck, the average was $44,271.

Boom towns

Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks, North Dakota’s three most populated areas, occupied the fourth, fifth and sixth spots for average wages.

The real money is in the energy-rich west, where Williston, Beulah-Hazen and Dickinson had the highest average wages in 2010, according to Job Service.

The average wage for jobs in Williston in 2010 was $57,314, where mining jobs, which include oil production, paid an average of $81,965 per year. It is a similar story in Dickinson and Beulah-Hazen, where mining jobs paid $95,525 and $84,126, respectively.

Attracting jobs

Among the 36,269 jobs in Grand Forks, a few include those with the job description of job promotion.

“We’re committed to trying to encourage companies to pay a living wage,” said Klaus Thiessen, president of the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp.

The EDC focuses on higher-wage jobs with good benefits, particularly those that sell products and services outside of the region, bringing in money that can be reinvested here.

“It really is bringing new money to the community,” said EDC Vice President Keith Lund.

Lund and Thiessen said producers such as LM Windpower, Steffes Corp., PS Doors and Applied Products establishing or expanding operations in the area are examples of progress for economic development. Thiessen pointed to a recent announcement of 60 manufacturing jobs by Cirrus Aircraft.

Strong manufacturing jobs are seen as positive elements for cities as they usually offer living wages a wide range of workers can base a career on.

“Manufacturing is generally a very positive thing to have in your community,” said Ziesch of Job Service. “Goods-producing industries tend to be very positive.”

In the area of wage growth, Grand Forks has a small edge over Fargo. Wages grew by 3.1 percent from 2009 to 2010, compared to 2.8 percent in Fargo. In Bismarck, at the edge of the Oil Patch, growth was 5 percent.

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Christopher Bjorke writes for the Grand Forks Herald