“In all the years that we’ve been here, I would have never thought in 100 million years we’d ever have to close up half the restaurant,” said Thompson.
Cars line Main Street in Cavalier at 11:30 on a Wednesday morning as people flock to Thompson’s Cafe for lunch. Inside, tables in half the restaurant are full of people chatting and passing around a copy of the local newspaper as a small fleet of waitresses bring out plates of the day’s special – turkey with potatoes, gravy and stuffing.
The other half of the restaurant is dark, with chairs blocking off the section. Usually, it is full of people, too, says Kelley Thompson, owner of Thompson’s Cafe.
“In all the years that we’ve been here, I would have never thought in 100 million years we’d ever have to close up half the restaurant,” said Thompson. “We almost had to do it last Sunday, and two Sundays ago was the first Sunday ever that we didn’t have enough help.”
Staffing isn’t only an issue at the local cafe. Businesses across rural northeast North Dakota, in industries like hospitality, retail and health care, are sharing an issue with finding employees.
All career sectors in rural areas across the state are facing this problem, according to Kendra Rosencrans, economic resilience specialist at the Red River Regional Council. She says 63% of working aged people in North Dakota live in cities in Cass, Grand Forks, Burleigh, Ward and Williams counties.
“That means the entire rest of the state is low on working age people and is competing for all the jobs,” said Rosencrans.
Meanwhile, in the rural northeast North Dakota counties of Pembina, Walsh, Nelson and Grand Forks, surveys completed by the Red River Regional Council show the need for an upward of 1,000 new employees in manufacturing, health care, education and small businesses over the next five years.
In Cavalier, a town of approximately 1,200, Chamber of Commerce President Kyle Gagner has noticed local businesses struggling with the lack of new workers to draw from.
“People are all taking from the same pie of labor, if you will,” said Gagner. “Finding good help might mean that somebody else loses good help, so it’s challenging.”
For some businesses in the region, the tight labor market has resulted in a shortage of applications. Debra Fraser, the administrator of Pembilier Nursing Center in Walhalla, a nearby town of around 900, said that within a year or two of running ads she only received five applications. In her 24 years at the nursing home, she has seen the number of employees at the nursing home drop from 75 to 40 while still caring for the same number of residents.
“When I first came here, we had 75 employees, we were fully staffed and we had applications coming in left and right,” Fraser said. “We could actually pick and choose.”
Winter is a slower season at Walhalla’s Forestwood Inn and C Store, especially this winter with Frost Fire Park being closed for skiing and snowboarding. But, come spring, Jessica Lafferty, general manager at the Forestwood Inn, will be looking for three or four more employees. She mentioned the difference between her first days of work versus now.
“Back when I started 14 years ago … we had a cluster of staff at all times. But now you have a hard time getting anybody to even apply,” she said.
At Thompson’s, the folder that used to be full of returned job applications often runs dry. Thompson said she recently printed out 12 blank applications to hand out to job seekers. All of the applications were taken, but not a single one has been returned.
“That happened a few times,” said Thompson.
Finding dependable workers
While new employees have been hard to find, some employers have found dependability in older employees.
According to Fraser, the average age of her employees is around 50. One employee is either 77 or 78.
“But she’s still working two days a week and if I have a call-in, she won’t say no,” she said. “I mean they’re just very dedicated to taking care of the elderly, even though she’s considered elderly herself and she can work circles around some of my younger staff, which is just crazy.”
David Hartz, owner of Do It Best Home & Lumber in Cavalier, said at one time, he had three employees over the age of 72.
Thompson said some of her own elderly customers have offered to help.
“That’s what we got for a long time was a lot of retired people saying, ‘hey, you know I could come, I don’t know what I could do that would be helpful but I could help,’” she said. “I was starting to think that that’s the only applicants we would get. … I just noticed that this weekend our delivery people – they all have gray hair.”
But older employees will not be working forever. The Red River Regional Council conducted interviews with 130 businesses in 2020 and 2021 and, according to Stacie Sevigny, the director of workforce development, about 400 employees will be needed to fill gaps left by retirees within the next five years. However, this data comes solely from the interviewed businesses, so the actual number could be higher.
Fraser says the nursing home is looking for more staff not because it is short staffed, but because she knows staff are going to retire, move or want a weekend or evening off.
“We have plenty of staff to take care of our residents’ needs, but it’s a really fine line between wanting to put more staff on in general to plan for the future and being short staffed,” said Fraser.
She says being selective with applicants has helped – it’s a matter of quality over quantity.
Hartz says finding good staff has always been a challenge. The store opened in its current building in Cavalier in 2019. He says having a good group of employees has helped his business adapt to the workforce shortage.
“As we get settled into this new store and get all the systems up and running better, it’s two years now, but we’re still improving,” Hartz said. “It’s getting better and better all the time to where we can get by with less people.”
For people looking at taking a job in rural areas, factors other than employment matter when considering making the move, said Sevigny.
“They want to know OK, this is a great job there, but what’s it like to live there?” she said. “What sort of schools are there for my kids? What about health care? Can my parents come? Would there be housing for them?”
According to Rosencrans, “it’s a lot about quality of life. People don’t want to just come for the money, they want to come to live.”
Other major barriers to people moving into the area are child care and housing availability.
“We already know that there are people that are sitting at home because they could not find quality child care for very good jobs,” said Dawn Mandt, executive director of the Red River Regional Council. “And so people that could be working actively are just not being able to because they cannot meet their personal needs of child care or housing.”
With employee attraction proving difficult for many businesses, finding ways to keep employees has become even more important for local businesses.
At Do It Best, Hartz says his family-first policies make employees want to stay.
“We are very, very flexible,” Hartz said. “Even the employees will tell you right away when it comes to family or health. I mean, that’s priority. That’s the biggest thing. I think that’s probably as valuable as the salary itself.”
Being flexible and family oriented is a trait shared by the Pembilier Nursing Center as well. Staff are spaced out across the schedule and are encouraged to take care of their loved ones.
“If you need a day off, we’re giving you a day off,” said Fraser.