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Published September 02, 2013, 02:00 PM

Despite low unemployment, job picture mixed bag for workers in North Dakota, Minnesota

North Dakota’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained the lowest in the nation in July, when it fell to 3.0 percent, dipping from the 3.1 percent recorded in June. Minnesota’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained steady in July at 5.2 percent, the 10th lowest unemployment rate in the nation. So, things must be looking a bit rosy for area workers, right?

By: Dave Olson, Forum News Service

FARGO, N.D. - Labor Day is traditionally a good day for rolling up one’s sleeves and assessing the state of America’s workforce.

Because numbers can tell part of the story, here are some numbers to mull over on this Labor Day 2013:

In July, the seasonally adjusted national unemployment rate stood at 7.4 percent, down from a post-recession high of 10 percent recorded in October 2009.

North Dakota’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained the lowest in the nation in July, when it fell to 3.0 percent, dipping from the 3.1 percent recorded in June.

Minnesota’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained steady in July at 5.2 percent, the 10th lowest unemployment rate in the nation.

So, things must be looking a bit rosy for area workers, right?

Yes and no, according to officials with North Dakota and Minnesota employment and training agencies.

For years, stories have circulated that though North Dakota’s unemployment rate is the envy of the nation, it masks a less-than-sunny reality: Some workers cannot find permanent full-time jobs and are relegated to working at one or more part-time jobs to pay the bills.

Carey Fry, spokeswoman for North Dakota Job Service in Fargo, has heard the stories ever since joining Job Service.

However, the agency doesn’t track such dynamics and determining the extent to which workers may find themselves in such a situation is not an easy thing to get a handle on, according to Fry.

Growing across U.S.

Nationally, some experts are concerned that more jobs will convert to part-time before 2015, when federal health care reforms kick in that penalize most employers if they don’t provide health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours per week.

If that happens, it would be a continuation of a trend toward more part-time work in the U.S. According to federal data, the number of people working part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work has nearly doubled from 4.6 million to 8.2 million.

But Aaron Grendahl said he is optimistic he can find full-time work again when he’s ready.

The Fargo resident now puts in about 20 hours a week at Centennial Shipping Products. He said he made the choice to drop down to part-time work to have more free time.

Grendahl said he has worked several full-time jobs in the past, and said he doesn’t expect to lose that option even after the health care reform mandate kicks in.

“I can find a full-time job if I wanted to,” he said.

Solomon Hins, a 16-year-old student at Fargo South High School, was walking around downtown Fargo on Saturday applying for part-time jobs. He said he thinks he’ll be able to land a job soon, and because he still lives with his parents, he doesn’t worry about the insurance that could come with full-time work.

But for many part-time workers, a lack of benefits isn’t the only concern. A 2011 study of working conditions in New York found only 17 percent of retail workers had a regular schedule and noted that part-time workers often have erratic hours, making it hard to plan the rest of their life around their job.

Crunching numbers

But Fry said from her perspective at Job Service, most people in North Dakota who are qualified for a job are finding work.

In the case of people who are looking for full-time jobs and not finding them, Fry said it’s often the case that an individual’s job qualifications don’t match with what employers are looking for in a candidate. She said in those situations Job Service works with jobseekers to address skill gaps.

Michael Ziesch, manager in the Labor Market Information Service at Job Service North Dakota, said one statistic that may speak to whether underemployment is an issue is the number of job openings available in the state.

He said that number stood at 20,436 in July.

Of the 22 non-military major occupational groups, office and administrative support had the largest number of openings with 2,202, followed closely by sales-related jobs with 2,200 openings.

Other occupational groups with job opening counts greater than 1,000 included: transportation and material moving; management; healthcare practitioners and technical; food preparation and serving; construction and extraction; installation; maintenance and repair; and production.

Ziesch said federal government data may also shed light on the question of underemployment and he pointed to a statistic that lumps together three numbers, including:

• The number of people unemployed.

• The number of people who have looked for a job in the past 12 months, but are no longer actively looking.

• The number of people who are doing part-time work but would like more hours.

People in the above categories made up 6.2 percent of North Dakota’s workforce in June and roughly 11.2 percent of Minnesota’s workforce.

If the basic unemployment number is pulled from those percentages, the people who are left – unemployed workers who are not actively looking for a job and people who are working part-time but would like more hours – made up roughly 3 percent of North Dakota’s workforce in June and roughly 6 percent of Minnesota’s workforce.

Both of those percentages are similar to what they were in 2003.

‘Not the same world’

Still, an official at the Moorhead office of the Rural Minnesota Concentrated Employment Program said a growing number of people who have seen their hours reduced are coming to the agency, and they are not earning enough to make ends meet.

At the same time, funding to help retrain those workers is shrinking, according to Theresa Hazemann, team leader in RMCEP’s Moorhead office.

In addition, Hazemann said, the American Crystal Sugar lockout affected a larger number of workers in the region.

That lockout began in August 2011 and was resolved in April, when union workers voted to accept a contract.

By the time the lockout ended, more than 600 union workers had resigned or retired.

“We had people who had been long-term at American Crystal,” Hazemann said.

“They went to their job when they were 17 years old, they shook their (employer’s) hand and started that night.

“It’s not the same world anymore,” Hazemann said, adding that some older workers seeking help from the agency have never written a cover letter or filled out a job application.

Helping those workers land the full-time job they’re looking for begins with the basics, according to Hazemann.

“First of all, we start talking about getting all of their paperwork back in order so they present themselves in a way an employer will want to screen them in. It takes a little bit of a technique,” Hazemann said.

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