Many Jobs On The Prairie, But No Place To Live

A sign in front of a janitorial service demonstrates the shortage of workers in Aberdeen, S.D. i i

A sign in front of a janitorial service demonstrates the shortage of workers in Aberdeen, S.D. Victoria Wicks for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Victoria Wicks for NPR
A sign in front of a janitorial service demonstrates the shortage of workers in Aberdeen, S.D.

A sign in front of a janitorial service demonstrates the shortage of workers in Aberdeen, S.D.

Victoria Wicks for NPR

Job seekers across the nation might be begging for work, but in Aberdeen, S.D., the unemployment rate is about 4 percent — less than half the nation's jobless rate. And many employers just can't find the workers they need.

Aberdeen's current economic surge isn't the first for this city of 26,000 in northeast South Dakota. The town got its nickname — the Hub City — because eight railroad lines once radiated from Aberdeen to major markets, hauling homesteaders' harvests.

Aberdeen sits about 70 miles from the North Dakota border, surrounded by farmland that supports agriculture, still the area's strongest industry. And because it's the largest town for 200 miles in any direction, it has enjoyed economic growth.

But population growth hasn't kept up, and now Mayor Mike Levsen says there are more jobs than there are qualified unemployed workers.

"A lot of the people who are unemployed are unemployable," he says, "because if they were employable, they'd have a job."

Comparing Jobless Rates

Jobless Rates Nationally, in South Dakota, Aberdeen

Levsen says when unemployment drops to 4.3 percent, employers can't find skilled labor. He says many of them are now just looking for workers they can train.

"All they're asking is minimum education, good work habits, pass the drug test, show up for work on time and follow directions," he says.

A Worker Deficit

On Aberdeen's northeast boundary is Industrial Park, a place where utilitarian buildings serve as home to manufacturers and service industries.

The 3M plant, with more than 600 employees, has been in this location for 36 years, primarily making face masks. And like other manufacturers, the plant at times has to add employees to ramp up production.

"Anytime you happen to have a factor within the country like [the H1N1 flu pandemic] a couple of years ago, the demand for our products increases significantly," says Becky Jirava, a human resources manager here.

She is now looking for more workers to help produce a new type of respirator. But it appears 3M has some serious competition for those workers.

Casting A Wider Net

Earlier this spring, Aberdeen started a national public relations campaign to announce its need for workers. Julie Johnson of Absolutely! Aberdeen emceed the news conference.

A worker at Molded Fiber Glass in Aberdeen works on a wind turbine blade. The company broke ground in 2007, but has never been able to fully staff its operation. Now it's looking to expand to add another blade to its product line. i i

A worker at Molded Fiber Glass in Aberdeen works on a wind turbine blade. The company broke ground in 2007, but has never been able to fully staff its operation. Now it's looking to expand to add another blade to its product line. Victoria Wicks for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Victoria Wicks for NPR
A worker at Molded Fiber Glass in Aberdeen works on a wind turbine blade. The company broke ground in 2007, but has never been able to fully staff its operation. Now it's looking to expand to add another blade to its product line.

A worker at Molded Fiber Glass in Aberdeen works on a wind turbine blade. The company broke ground in 2007, but has never been able to fully staff its operation. Now it's looking to expand to add another blade to its product line.

Victoria Wicks for NPR

"Here's the headline: 1,000-plus jobs in Aberdeen, South Dakota, this year," she said.

The campaign's point is to attract nonresidents to live and work in Aberdeen. But Levsen says job seekers who decide to relocate might have trouble finding housing.

"The biggest stumbling block is they come here and they look around and they can't find a place to live," he says.

In Aberdeen, it appears, real estate hasn't kept up with other segments of the local economy.

Loosening The Reins On New Development

A popular spot for morning coffee is the Airport Cafe out east on Highway 12, just south of Industrial Park.

Allen Wellman is semi-retired and in the process of turning his construction business over to his sons. They do prep work, laying gravel and digging basements. Wellman says the construction business is certainly not booming.

"It's very slow, and it's highly competitive right now," he says. "Some of the jobs you just can't even break even on them that they're bidding for."

Carter Carlson — president of the Aberdeen Board of Realtors — thinks a cautious approach to new development has kept the real estate economy steady.

"Some communities in the middle part of the last decade — 2005, 2006, when things were great in America — possibly overbuilt a little bit, and the contractors and developers got a little too aggressive," he says.

"Aberdeen is a fairly conservative town — we're ag-based, we don't boom, we don't bust. We stay pretty stable."

Carlson says for now things are tight, but developers are planning to build more housing in the next year or two.

"We will be prepared, not if this comes but when it comes," he says.

Employers seeking new workers might argue that "it" is already here. And without substantial new housing now, the Hub City might just be spinning its wheels.

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