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'Find the Good Life' has more money and more makers, but executives say it's too early to judge its success – Grand Forks Herald

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the first part of a series on the changing workforce in North Dakota.

GRAND FORKS – When the average person mentions North Dakota, the first thing they probably think of is the movie “Fargo” or the Weather Channel's crazy reports, says Sara Otte Coleman.

Neither is a good way to sell the state to potential residents, she says.

Sara Otte Coleman

/ Handout

On the bright side, Otte Coleman, director of tourism and marketing for the state Department of Commerce, now has a “Fargo”-sized budget to tell her own story.

Lawmakers boosted the Commerce Department's “Find the Good Life” campaign last year with a $12 million infusion into the workforce recruiting program, more than $1 million of which was spent on a six-month advertising campaign that began in January.

A government workforce portal to connect employers directly with potential recruits is currently being tested and is expected to launch in mid-May.

Despite the additional funds, Otte Coleman and other program leaders say it is still too early to judge the success of the campaign.

“We are in the early stages of developing a workforce recruitment strategy,” Otte Coleman said in February. “It will take a while.”

North Dakota had the lowest unemployment rate in the country last year, a distinction it continued into March. according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as approximately 27,000 open positions.

It also recorded some of the lowest state-to-state migration numbers in the country in 2022, the most recent year of census data available. Only South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming had fewer new arrivals.

Find the Good Life has made some progress in bringing people into the state. Nine people moved to the state through Find the Good Life in the first six months of the program, the Herald reported in January 2023, and another 25 moved to the state between that time and April.

“A year seems like a long time, but I would like to point out that we are trying to overcome a major awareness deficit,” said Otte Coleman. “People don’t know enough about North Dakota.”

Find the Good Life also only counts people who actually went through the campaign to move to North Dakota.

“We do our best to track as much as possible, but we know that not everyone who comes to North Dakota will be accepted into our pipeline,” said Human Resources Director Katie Ralston-Howe.

On the advertising side, the Commerce Department has poured money into long-form ads, email campaigns and pitches to lifestyle content publishers.

The company spent $1.1 million on its most recent advertising buy, a nearly 10-fold increase from the $174,000 it spent between July and December last year.

This campaign, aimed at young families, began in January and will run until June.

Find the Good Life respondents have had a few things in common so far: They generally enjoy being outdoors, are interested in festivals and family-friendly arts and entertainment, and come from larger, more densely populated states like California, Florida and Texas.

“It’s people who want an active, outdoor lifestyle,” Otte Coleman said. “They want four seasons. But maybe they're tired of not having a parking spot at the trailhead. Maybe they’re tired of driving four hours out of town.”

Each of the 34 has moved to one of 16 cities in North Dakota.

Minot has been particularly successful in attracting new residents: “About a half dozen” moved to North Dakota's fourth-largest city, said Mark Lyman of the Minot Area Chamber Economic Development Corporation.

Like other cities, Minot has residents whom Find the Good Life has recruited as “community champions” to provide information to potential North Dakotans, but the Chamber EDC has also recruited some residents for its own community support program, which it Wayfinders calls .

“A lot of this is about the first point of contact,” Lyman said. “It's like a salesperson in the store greeting you. And the Wayfinders program is kind of the second or third tier of that, saying, now that you're here, we're going to help you engage with the community.”

Minot's first Find the Good Life hire, a former Washington state resident named Travis High who works in IT, caused a minor sensation in the North Dakota news media when he moved in 2022.

Nearly two years later, he's still in Minot and sees no reason to leave the country any time soon. He is single, but gets along well with his colleagues and enjoys outdoor activities. He's saving money for a down payment on a house.

“I wasn’t given any real reason to leave other than the winters are cold,” he said.

He also said that Minot's affordability and surprising cultural and culinary diversity – the latter of which Lyman credits to the Air Force base – helped keep him in town.

New arrivals, Lyman said, come from all walks of life: young, single people, young families, retirees.

Dustin Hillebrand, manager at North Dakota Job Service in Grand Forks, says the program provides an opportunity to sell North Dakota directly to potential residents, particularly smaller communities that might otherwise be overlooked.

“It gives us an opportunity to highlight why these people should be serious about moving to North Dakota,” he said.

North Dakota isn't the only state in the region that has increased its workforce recruiting efforts in the last year.

Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota – which had the second-lowest unemployment rate in the country in February – announced in November an additional $1.5 million for the state's Freedom Works Here workforce campaign, in addition to the $5 million which the state has already spent The program has been accused by state lawmakers of financial impropriety.

Minnesota announced its new “Star of the North” campaign in February, aimed at tourists and potential new residents. Minnesota also has a below-average unemployment rate and is currently losing more residents than it is gaining.

In an emailed statement, Kim Schmidt, communications manager for the North Dakota Department of Commerce, said Find the Good Life stands apart from competitors with its support network of community champions who help residents find careers and work campaigns take off.

The human resources section of “Find the Good Life” is still under construction. His biggest project, Ralston-Howe said in February, was launching a workforce portal to connect employers directly with residents. This is expected to go online in May.

The campaign also earmarks millions of dollars for student and alumni retention and talent attraction, including $500,000 for air tours of the state.

Most of that money has not yet been spent, and some of the $6 million for workforce programs is expected to remain beyond the end of the biennium.

“When you create larger projects or programs from our side, it just takes a little longer,” Ralston-Howe said. “This is not the type of initiative that you do for two years and then give up.”

Anna Harden

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