The famous labor shortage of the North Dakota oil fields, coupled with a serious lack of housing, has prompted home improvement store Menard, Inc. to quit trying to recruit help locally. Instead, they're turning to their headquarters in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (my hometown!) where there's a surplus of workers. Menards thought, why not just fly them out there and back home every week? It was a simple matter of connecting the dots.
Last year, the Leader-Telegram reported that fifty Wisconsinites would be commuting 500 miles one-way to Minot, N.D. each week in a private company jet, and that the competition for these jobs was stiff. (Eau Claire's unemployment rate of six percent is still relatively high compared to Minot's 2.5 percent). It's an attractive deal for Eau Claire retail workers who don't mind air travel. At $13 an hour in base pay, they're earning almost double Wisconsin's minimum of $7.25 an hour. Menards throws in a few travel necessities, too, like free double-occupancy lodging and stipends for meals. Their recruitment pitch also touted "outstanding benefits."
For some fly-in, fly-out employees, especially older ones, the arrangement offered a way to capitalize on North Dakota's roaring economy without uprooting themselves from their homes completely -- a concept that these ST commenters would surely sympathize with. Menards also knew that many Americans are genuinely curious and would be excited to experience the once-in-a-lifetime, Wild West-like boom firsthand.
Yet, surprisingly, this is not a quick fix or a Band-Aid for Minot's staffing shortage. Menards will keep fueling their jets as long as fracking keeps freeing oil from that shale rock. Labor and housing shortages in the northern prairie aren't going away any time soon. For one thing, the Souris River flood of 2011 wiped out more than 4,000 households, many which are just now being rebuilt. The frigid climate may be to blame, too. Long before the deep freeze sets in each year in North Dakota (not to mention this year's rare polar vortex), scads of workers pack up and leave the state -- because at 20-below zero, you can't live in a car anymore. Many residents have already left the city of 50,000-and-growing, which sits on the edge of the oil patch, for higher-paying oilfield jobs. Service and retail job vacancies have become quite common.
"Everybody is looking for workers. Everybody is doing whatever they can to beg, borrow and steal employees," said John MacMartin, president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce, in an interview with the Leader Telegram. MacMartin mentioned an Olive Garden that temporarily resorted to bringing in staff from outside.
But no one has set up a plan that looks quite like Menards'.
Initial calls to the company's HR department asking to speak directly with fly-in, fly-out workers, were not returned.