Hundreds of construction workers needed in North Dakota

2014-04-08T08:30:00Z Hundreds of construction workers needed in North DakotaBy JENNIFER NAYLOR GESICK Rapid City Journal The Billings Gazette

RAPID CITY, S.D. — When Andy Scull looks to the Bakken oil fields, he not only sees plenty of potential for his Rapid City construction company, but also for the hundreds of workers who can cash in on the next big boom in western North Dakota.

"It’s a wild thing that’s going on there, and there is a tremendous amount of need from all different types of resources," said the owner of Scull Construction, which also has an office in Dickinson, N.D., that employs 50 workers.

The North Dakota oil boom that for years has been attracting workers from across the nation with the promise of big paychecks and plenty of work is now moving on to the next stage — a building boom.

The surge in population in the sparsely populated area has generated a need for what Scull calls quality-of-life projects like wellness centers, schools, hospitals, recreation centers and municipal government buildings.

The owner of one of Rapid City's largest construction firms said enough work exists for him to easily hire another 50 employees in North Dakota.

And apparently he is not alone.

Dakota Construction Careers, a coalition of six labor unions, has recently launched what they say is an unprecedented campaign to recruit construction workers or those willing to learn the building trades to western North Dakota, where a huge demand for skilled labor exists.

According to the North Dakota State Building Construction Trades, there are now 1,400 skilled construction jobs in the state.

As part of the initiative by the labor unions, job fairs will be held in eight North Dakota communities and Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, Pierre and Rapid City.

The pay for those jobs now are around $50 an hour with benefits, according to a spokesman for the union coalition that represents bricklayers, cement masons, plasterers, iron workers, laborers, operating engineers, and painters and allied trades.

Jobs in the construction industry as a whole have an average hourly pay of $29.43 in North Dakota, according to the Labor Market Information Center, Job Service North Dakota.

Construction trades workers in North Dakota make an average hourly rate of about $20.29 and laborers make an average of $15.61 an hour, according to the same data.

Those wages compare to an average of $12.67 for laborers and $16.81 an hour for construction and extraction operators in South Dakota, according to the state Department of Labor's most recent quarterly report.

Scull said the discrepancy reflects the skyrocketing demand in North Dakota, which the unions are working to fill.

"Right now we are running out of people for jobs," Brian Aske, apprenticeship coordinator for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. "We are interested in recruiting and training either new people that want to start a career or people that might have some experience."

Justin Ohlrogge, a 24-year-old crane operator for D & W Crane and Rigging in Rapid City, has already joined a union training program and begun to reap the benefits.

He is scheduled to leave next week for the Local 49 Heavy Equipment Operator Training School in Hinckley, Minn. The 400-acre training site has 10 classrooms, 11 offices, a six-bay machine shop, a two-bay welding area, a two-bay wash rack, and a 30,000-square-foot indoor training area.

"It’s very different than just having to go to school," Ohlrogge said. "You go to this class to learn the stuff you need to know for your job. You don’t have to go back and re-learn social studies."

The union will cover Ohlrogge's training costs, including lodging while he attends school for about a month.

Ohlrogge plans to continue working in Rapid City for personal reasons, he is seeing friends and coworkers look north for the promise for much bigger paychecks.

Local impact

While the chance to earn more money is good for workers, it might not be so good for local companies trying to retain workers or those who need to hire contractors or construction companies.

Some public projects in South Dakota also are having a hard time finding people to hire.

"We’ve had an ad out many times over the past two years for highway workers, and no one has applied," Valerie Williams, administrative assistant with the Haakon County Highway Department, said last week. "We have one out now, and we haven’t had one application. They pay so much more (in North Dakota) that it makes it more difficult."

Scull said it is not only about finding people, but also about finding quality people. Neither of which has been easy, he said.

"We have a number of people who have moved for us from South Dakota to North Dakota to work and people that commute," he said.

And administrators with the Rapid City Area Schools are already planning on the possibility of construction prices increasing for upcoming building projects.

Another way this is impacting schools, however, is the addition of programs for those interested in working in the construction industry.

Western Dakota Tech is in the process of adding classes to train students who desire a job in the industry.

Steve Buchholz, marketing director for WDT, said discussions with construction industry professionals have increased significantly in the past few months.

"We’ve heard three areas repeatedly mentioned: commercial construction, residential construction and heavy equipment operators," he said. "We are working on plans with those. There is no set timeline, but as soon as we can have something quality in place we want to make that happen."

And as the construction boom progresses, it seems to be having a civilizing effect as the rowdy reputations of the oil boom towns fade away, Scull said.

"There are a lot of myths out there that it’s a gold rush town," he said. "Two or three years ago it was kind of like that, but now it's sort of stabilizing and normalizing. Whatever that may be."

Since Scull opened a branch in Dickinson in 2012, he said business has been strong and steady.

"It came on as a gigantic demand, and it's at least equal to what it has been," he said. "There are no signs that it is slowing down."

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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