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The Good Life: As Job Numbers Grow, Group Touts N.D. as the Place to Be
Post Date: Aug 10 2015

By Grand Forks Herald
There are about 2,500 open jobs in Grand Forks County alone. The number statewide is approximately 25,000.

According to representatives from the state's Find the Good Life in North Dakota campaign, it won't get much better anytime soon, either. The group says there will be another 75,000 jobs coming online in North Dakota over the next five years.

That's a lot of job openings for a state this size, and, they say, it's why the Find the Good Life campaign is so important for North Dakota's economy.

"The bottom line is this: What we're trying to do with this campaign is we want to get North Dakota into people's considerations," said Sara Otte Coleman, North Dakota's director of tourism. "We want to be one of the top three states people are considering moving to."

Otte Coleman and North Dakota Director of Workforce Development Wayde Sick recently visited with the editorial board of the Grand Forks Herald, spending nearly an hour talking about North Dakota's worker shortage and how it likely will be compounded in the coming years. They were accompanied by Eric Trueblood, a member of the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation.

Their goal is to get the word out that North Dakota not only has thousands of good jobs available, but also that the state needs to work harder to persuade people to live here. That means recruiting from other states, working to lure veterans to the region and persuading communities to dedicate themselves to retaining high school and college graduates, Otte Coleman said.

The Find the Good Life in North Dakota campaign has been working on that since May 2014, using all sorts of methods—from social media campaigns to national magazine stories—to spread the message. Private fundraising has contributed more than $1 million to the program.

Following are edited and abbreviated answers by Sick and Otte Coleman to a series of questions posed by members of the Herald editorial board:

Q. You say the statewide number of job openings is about 25,000. What is the number for Grand Forks County and how does that compare with other North Dakota counties?

Otte Coleman: The statistics we have for Grand Forks County is 2,500 jobs posted with Job Service. The statistics that we have, for example, for Cass County is 6,600 open jobs. ... This is a long-term focus for us. The need for jobs isn't going to go away.

That begs the question, is the goal to get that number to go down? It's a mixed answer. Yes and no, because if we continue to grow the economy and new businesses come in, they will continue to expand and we will continue to see that number growing.

It might be a zero sum game. You might be filling 10,000 of those jobs, but 10,000 more have come online because we were able to show we have the workforce to sustain growth.

Q. Is the number of jobs growing? And is that how you measure success?

Otte Coleman: Yes, and that's a really good question. ... The bottom line is this: What we're trying to do for the campaign is we want to get North Dakota into people's considerations. We want to be one of the top three states people are considering moving to.

Does that mean they will necessarily go and register their resume online with Job Service North Dakota? Probably not. Especially with the younger workforce. They are searching in different ways and finding information in different ways.

So we are doing social media and doing digital marketing campaigns and tactics to reach people who won't necessarily show up on the metrics every month. But we still wanted to do something consistent, knowing that there really isn't a perfect mechanism.

Two things that we haven't found: We haven't found the "easy button" in marketing to get everybody to come, and we haven't orchestrated a checkpoint where everybody has to check in when they cross the border with their moving vans.

When we look at what markets we have targeted, we looked at 15 different statistics and overlaid them to determine what states we should focus these efforts in, ranging from census data, to job service data, to even metrics that I track on the tourism side for inquiries and interest.

We haven't found the magic number. We look at these and ask, how do we determine success? It's just not an easy answer.

Q. What is an example of your research?

Otte Coleman: We did do some research last winter where we looked at 350 new residents who moved into the state in the past five years and tried to determine what it was that made them decide to move. That helped us define tactics and mediums, but also messaging.

Online is No. 1, but people don't necessarily say it was the Find The Good Life in North Dakota website that made them start thinking about it. It was probably five or six websites, and two or three social media efforts and a couple of articles that they read. It was a combination of things.

Q. With that sample group, what did you find was the overriding reason people decided to move to North Dakota?

Otte Coleman: Most of them had a connection to the state in some way. Maybe they went to school here or even visited here. A lot of them did come just for the job. ... One concern in the research was that a good majority of them, when they took the job, they didn't plan on staying. That means all of our communities have a job ahead of them to engage those people, and include them and keep them, because we really want to retain those new employees. Some of that, we hope, has already changed. We hope to do a follow-up study.

Q. How will you judge your work to be successful?

Otte Coleman: I don't know that I have a perfect answer for that. I think we will determine the metrics and continue to look at the tactics and keep measuring each of those individually. For instance, we just did a social media campaign that garnered 11 or 12 million impressions with 100,000 click-throughs. You measure pieces like that so we know we made a contact point.

We will start looking at the folks who have moved in, through the census data, but that takes time.

We'll look at campaign metrics to define our next step. Long-term, we look at census data and Job Service data and all of those things to see if we're seeing growth in some areas we have targeted.

We also are working closely with other folks who are trying to tackle this problem, like development corporations. For instance, we just met with the Grand Forks EDC.

Fargo and Bismarck are doing similar programs. For example, in Bismarck, they did a digital ad campaign that focused directly on the five areas where they know they have the most jobs. Nurses, CDLs, techs, engineers and diesel mechanics. We are overlaying their results with ours to see which was more effective, and they are doing the same.

But that was a 16-week campaign. It takes six to 18 months to make a decision to move and then you have that moving time in there. So, I don't have a perfect answer about that, and we have been honest about that up front.

We don't know the perfect way to measure success with this, but we have a lot of things we're measuring.

Q. Is there realistic hope for a county that has 6,000 open jobs? Or 2,500 open jobs? Can you really make a dent in this?

Otte Coleman: We think we can. It comes from a combination of things, such as improving the awareness of the state, educating people about the life they can have here in North Dakota.

But the other thing we have been hearing a lot about with our partners is how they are working with alumni groups and even current students on opportunities. ... Ten years ago, a lot of people probably didn't think about staying in North Dakota, and that perception is changing as well.

Sick: A lot of local efforts have been (about) retaining high school and college graduates. That's definitely something a local community can probably do better because they do have those closer ties.

I think we are seeing our graduates considering North Dakota and not leaving. I look at my high school graduation class and at least half of us are not in the state.

As we study those graduation numbers and compare it with wage data down the road, that number will climb because of the local efforts.

I think parents are having those conversations with kids, saying that you don't need to leave. There are opportunities in the state, and you don't need to look elsewhere anymore.

Q. Do you expect this ongoing recruiting effort to get more difficult as time goes on, and as other states' economies improve?

Sick: That has been part of the conversation since the beginning, because we know other states' economies are going to improve eventually. It's another challenge.

Otte Coleman: You look at our top states where people have engaged—Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan and California—where the most folks have clicked on our website, or ads, or gotten online social media-wise. Especially, Minnesota's economy is rebounding fast, and they have way more open jobs than we do. So, absolutely, that is a concern.

We hope a consistent and sustainable effort will be in place for a long time. It's more about creating a message. We don't want to be a quick fix anymore.

Q. Are there other specific groups you are looking to target?

Sick: The focus of Find the Good Life, for a long time, has been recruiting veterans. A lot of service members are either retiring or transitioning out of the military. We have done marketing to service members, and we have attended some hiring events, and plan to attend more this fall and winter.

The effort going forward is going to "Hire Our Hero" events. What we hear from individuals who organize these events is that when somebody transitions out of the military, a third of them stay where they are at, a third go home and a third go where the opportunities are. That is obviously our target—where the opportunities are.

North Dakota has a lot of opportunities and wide-open spaces. These individuals are used to moving around and used to working in not the most ideal work situations. So, it's a great target. That's the right thing to do, to work with service members and help them transition into civilian life.

We also have done some efforts with the University of Minnesota. We think that's a good target as well—college students in the region.

Otte Coleman: We stopped by the UND Alumni Association and NDSU. We haven't gotten that off the ground yet, but we think that's a natural connection point as well. We have done some individual alumni efforts, such as working with UND Center for Rural Health.

Sick: Alumni is a natural next step. Our research shows that people who have moved to North Dakota in the past five years had some kind of connection, where they grew up in North Dakota or went to college in North Dakota. There was some connection.

So alumni is a pretty good fit for us.

Q. Has the oil-drilling slowdown changed anything in your approach?

Otte Coleman: It has a little bit. I think people in this area understand it better and realize this isn't really a bust and understand the framework involved. But the national media, not necessarily.

So, we have focused the last three or four months on content development. We are trying to get good stories told. Some of that is working with bloggers and writers and talking about the people who have moved to North Dakota.

We are doing more video development, and we are working with 15 different bloggers to get those stories in place. We have other public relations efforts in place right now with a couple of new contract relationships with firms that can help us get those stories out there.

For example, there is a 25-page feature in the July edition of Delta Sky.

Q: How important is the role that tourism plays in this?

Otte Coleman: I think that's why we have airport signage in place in Bismarck and Williston, and as airport signage becomes available, I think we will add more. If you can connect to people who are visiting here and plant that seed, it makes sense.

All of our visitors guides are distributed to crew camps where we know we have transient workers.

The bottom line is people visit first. Tourism marketing helps everything. Part of the reason we have this problem (with open jobs) is we have underfunded marketing in the state for years, because we are conservative and haven't spent a lot of money in that area. So, we don't have a lot of awareness.

But interestingly, when you look at the metrics, they all mirror where we have spent most of our tourism dollars. (People in those places) have more awareness of us because we have been showing them what we have. It's a huge correlation.

We are one of two states that a research firm chose to study to find out the residual effect of tourism marketing on all economic development. The numbers were amazing. People's likelihood to retire here, to move here, to start a business here was double if they had seen the tourism ads. That's not even if they had visited.

The Good Life: As Job Numbers Grow, Group Touts N.D. as the Place to Be - Grand Forks Herald
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