North Dakota is in the midst of a wind energy boom, but a regional labor union says the state is not getting as much economic benefit from it as they could.
There are nine major wind farm projects either seeking permits or in pre-construction stages across North Dakota right now. These will generate an estimated 2,435 megawatts of additional power for the state’s already impressive wind energy portfolio.
But right now, a large majority of these projects are being built with out-of-state labor, according to a study by Laborer’s International Union of North America affiliate Local Jobs North Dakota-Minnesota. That’s costing the state millions in economic impact, because local workers spend roughly three times more locally than non-local workers do.
Each local worker spends roughly $52,000 in state annually, as opposed to non-local workers, who spend about $16,000, the report said. Meanwhile, almost 86 percent of the construction workforce on recent wind farm projects in North Dakota were nonlocal.
If half of those workers had been local, the total economic impact to North Dakota would have been $170 million, according to the report.
Even if the amount of locally hired construction workers for wind farms only rose to between 10 to 30 percent percent, the total projected economic impact would still be huge — from $87 to $127 million.
Lucas Franco, the author of the study, said the fact that North Dakota has a very tight labor market right now due to oil and gas jobs doesn’t mean there is no opportunity to fill more of wind farm construction jobs using the local workforce.
“We had the same question on this in Minnesota when we did this work there and advocated for the use of local labor,” he said.
Minnesota then had around 3.2 percent unemployment, Franco said.
“After changes in the industry both from the Public Utilities Commission and the employers, which included more transparency around reporting and more industry and utility partners committing to hire locally, we saw a big jump, from 20 percent to over 50 percent,” he said. “So thinking within that context, we had those same questions and we saw pretty massive improvements, even though at the time, it was a pretty tight labor market there, too.”
Franco said what they found in Minnesota was that there was a huge pool of low wage workers in retail and service jobs who were interested in taking wind energy jobs.
Anecdotally, when individuals in North Dakota have tried to apply for such jobs, they generally didn’t get a return call, according to testimony LIUNA personnel have provided to the Public Service Commission for the Ruso Wind Project. In fact, even when those with a fair amount of experience in wind farm construction tried for the jobs, they didn’t get return phone calls either.
Franco believes this shows it is more a problem with attitudes than just a too-tight labor market.
“In the case of the wind industry, there are quite a few of the jobs that are excellent pay and that don’t take much time to get trained up to do the work,” Franco said. “So there is this huge potential of low-paying, precarious jobs being filled by local people who might be interested in this opportunity.”
LIUNA has asked the North Dakota PSC to provide more transparency in reporting how many jobs are local when wind farm projects come to call.
“If you read most project applications, there’s often a promise to do the best they can to put a lot of local workers to work,” Franco said. “But it’s hard to hold people accountable without some data transparency throughout the construction process.”
A case in point, he said, would be the Lindahl Wind Farm in Williams County, and the upcoming Aurora Wind Farm, which will soon begin construction.
A quarterly report throughout construction would help ensure that transparency, and accountability, Franco said.
As far as training, Franco said there are a variety of programs, both from LIUNA and from other workforce development entities, that could help get low-wage workers ready for wind farm jobs quickly.
“Sometimes when employers push back and say the job market is too tight, we cannot hire workers, it’s because they are talking about specialized skills,” Franco said. “But in this case, the wind industry, there are quite a few jobs that are excellent pay and don’t take much time to get trained up to do the work.”
Once it was prioritized in Minnesota, things quickly shifted, Franco said.
“We saw huge improvements,” he added. “There’s no reason that same thing cannot happen in North Dakota.”