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John Hageman, Forum News Service, Published December 01 2013

North Dakota skilled labor force among youngest in United States

GRAND FORKS – North Dakota’s skilled labor workforce is among the youngest in the country.

The portion of skilled laborers – electricians, welders, machinists – approaching retirement age in North Dakota is well below the national average, according to data compiled by an international labor market analysis firm.

Experts point to North Dakota’s oil boom as one reason for that trend. They say young workers, who are more likely to migrate than older ones, are attracted by job opportunities created by the Bakken oil formation.

Less than 43 percent of skilled laborers in the state are above the age of 45, compared to the national average of 52.9 percent. Meanwhile, only 15.1 percent of those workers here are above the age of 55, compared to 20.9 percent nationally, according to Economic Modeling Specialists International.

Only South Dakota and the District of Columbia have smaller portions of older workers. Minnesota’s share of skilled workers above the age of 45 stands at 52.1 percent, and 19.4 percent of its workers are older than 55.

The 21 occupations EMSI analyzed for its rankings, which were published in March, don’t include occupations directly tied to the oil industry. But employment in some fields, like welding, can be influenced indirectly by job growth in western North Dakota’s oil boom.

Kevin Iverson, manager of the census office at the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said data he’s analyzed indicates many young people are migrating to North Dakota, likely for job opportunities. Median hourly earnings for skilled laborers in North Dakota are $20.63, $4 more than in South Dakota, but less than in Minnesota.

“If you look at the industries that have had a lot of growth in North Dakota … the majority of the growth has been in the younger age groups,” he said. He noted that less than 25 percent of those working in the oil industry in the fourth quarter of 2000 were under the age of 35, a proportion that jumped to 52 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The overall number of electricians in North Dakota increased from 2,020 in 2010 to 2,600 last year. Industrial machinery mechanic jobs increased 74 percent, and welders jumped by 43 percent in that time.

Joshua Wright, public relations manager at EMSI, said states with a large portion of older workers may face labor shortages as workers start to retire.

But industry officials here said there is still a need for workers.

“With the economy in North Dakota, and it’s starting to look like it’s finally starting to turn around in northwest Minnesota … there is going to be a shortage,” said Tim Hughes, business manager at the local office of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

“I can’t tell you there’s a need for 100 or 1,000 today, but that day is not far away.”

Brian Suckow, a welding instructor at Northland Community and Technical College, said he often visits with employers seeking workers with the necessary skills.

“We’re heavily recruited,” Suckow said. “We’ve already had companies in the last couple of months approaching us looking for skilled welders.”

Suckow said Diverse Energy Systems, a steel products manufacturer with a plant in Grafton, N.D., has been offering welding scholarships at NCTC. Diverse is one company that’s doing business in western North Dakota because of the oil boom, but located in the Red River Valley partially to avoid a tight labor market in the west.

Suckow said his welding classes are full, but NCTC officials are exploring the idea of expanding the program.

“We’re getting a lot of interest,” Suckow said. “Not just from students, but from companies.”