Abraham Kirk was a union welder at Chrysler in Illinois. During the downsizing in 2009, he took a buyout but was unable to find another good-paying job in Rockford.
“I had to take a job working at the gum factory,” Kirk told Fox News, “making $10.50 an hour when I was used to making $18-$22 an hour.”
As money became tight, Kirk had to sell his 2009 Jeep Wrangler. With his prospects for employment dim, and money running low, he heard about a new promised land for skilled tradesmen – South Dakota.
Kirk moved and has never looked back. He’s a welder at Trail King in Mitchell, S.D., which makes specialty truck trailers for construction and hauling. “This is a non-union shop,” he told Fox News, “and I definitely could compare this to Chrysler – a union job where they treat you well, you get good benefits, you get a 401k, they take care of you.”
Across South Dakota, people like Abraham Kirk are in high demand. The state has more than 11,000 jobs it can’t find workers to fill. Many of those jobs require skilled labor, engineers or professionals. The local labor pool has been tapped out, so South Dakota businesses are being forced to recruit from across the country. Gov. Dennis Daugaard is paying Manpower $5 million to find 1,000 new workers.
The jobs run the gamut, according to the governor. “Accounting or financial services, engineering, information technology and in the skilled manufacturing trades – primarily machining and high-skilled welding.”
South Dakota’s dilemma is reflected in the JOLTS survey (job openings and labor turnover) released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It found that at the end of July, there were 3.7 million job openings – a number that stands in sharp contrast to the national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent.
Some companies have job openings they aren’t filling because of economic uncertainty. But many companies are either in regions where it’s tough to find workers, or they can’t match skills to the job.
“Anybody that’s got skills, if they want a job, they can get a job – tomorrow,” says Bruce Yakely, the CEO of Trail King, adding, “The unemployment rate is essentially zero for people that want to have a job.”
It used to be the American workforce was highly mobile, moving wherever the jobs were. But in recent decades, people have become far more entrenched in their communities. If an out-of-work welder in, say, Detroit moved to tiny Mitchell, he or she could command a respectable salary in a state where the cost of living is low, and there is no state income tax.
Says Yakely, “With their overtime, they (welders) are going to make north of $80,000.”
But wide-open spaces and rural living are a tough sell. Colleen Stratton is VP of Human Resources for Poet biofuels in Sioux Falls. “It’s very hard to recruit individuals into those rural areas,” she told Fox News, “but once we get individuals to our communities and show them that we are such a great corporate citizen and such a great place to work, we normally don’t have issues recruiting at that point.”
Geography is one reason why jobs go wanting. Another is that people aren’t getting the right education for the 21st century economy. Too many are going into four-year college programs where the job market is tight, says Gov. Daugaard. South Dakota is actually adding welding and machining courses to vocational schools, urging high school students to educate themselves for jobs that actually exist.
“We are trying to encourage more of our high school seniors to consider technical schools as a good alternative to a four-year degree,” Daugaard told Fox News, “In fact, a shorter route to a good-paying job in many cases.”
John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.