It is obvious to everybody that the state of North Dakota has a very healthy economy right now. Our unemployment is about 1/3 of the national average and we have tens of thousands of job openings. We currently have a state that has seen the North Dakota Office of Management and Budget’s underestimate the size of revenues (which is a problem, but not the worst problem). All of this seemed impossible a little over a decade ago. It is not that long ago we had efforts in the state to give massive tax breaks to young people who stayed in the state, and every legislative session was filled with discussion on how laws could be passed to create jobs. However it is very important that North Dakota does not lose focus of the need for continued economic development.
There is proof that we are doing that. In my hometown of Minot, the city has a MAGIC fund that is supposed to be used to fund relocations, start-ups and expansions in the area. However, it has recently been used to fund a private school gymnasium and an outdoor workout facility at a local non-profit. Perhaps these are good projects, but neither is going to bring sustainable jobs to our communities.
We must remember that oil field jobs are not, in many cases, long term careers that are going to keep people in North Dakota. All you have to do is stand in line at a Western Union on payday and you will see hundreds of thousands of dollars being sent out of the state. The people who are moving here for our oil boom have lived in many other places working in oil development, and move with the job. They are a hardworking people, but by nature, they are also transient. If North Dakota does not continue to diversify its workforce, our long term viability will be compromised.
We must continue to build what I consider to be the bedrock of economic development, Higher Ed. We need a Higher Ed system that is aggressive in teaching the skills that tomorrows workers will need, and that is accessible and affordable to all who wish to learn. I am personally tired of seeing all the stories about colleges handing out big paychecks to faculty, building a new building, or dedicating a very ugly Beaver statue. Our Colleges need to be focused on developing tomorrow’s workforce, not competing with each other to have the most expensive faculties and facilities.
Secondly, economic development must include infrastructure. No successful business can be built without essential infrastructure like roads, water, sewer, fire departments, police departments, and good civic engineering. I am also inclined to include high speed internet and good phone services to that list. The reality of our growing state is that the cost of each is going up. To be very blunt, even to get the level of services we expected in the past costs more, and we need a lot more service. That sort of development is often undervalued by many in the public, but the second it is compromised, you realize how much you take it for granted.
Finally, we have to remember that most modern economic development takes place on a computer screen on a kitchen table. For years, our decision maker’s viewed smoke stacks as signs of good economic development. Nobody is against big new businesses, however, as our states population continues to grow, more and more people will have the opportunity to develop home based business. We must view these jobs as real jobs and set policy that helps to develop them.