North Dakota to Throw Chicago Job Fair to Lure Expatriates Back to State

North Dakota needs its native sons and daughters — and it's willing to admit it.

Tired of a years-long talent suck, the state plans a unique job fair in Chicago and another in Colorado to lure young professionals back to their home state to take advantage of an uptick in the economy that has resulted in more than 10,000 jobs.

Pitching North Dakota to its own seemed easier to officials than trying to convince outsiders, who are likely to dismiss the state as a cold and inconsequential place, said state Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle.

"If they have a conception of North Dakota at all, it's from the movie 'Fargo,' which does not put its best foot forward for our state," Goettle said.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 21,000 North Dakotans left between 2000 and 2007, said Richard Rathge, the state data center director and North Dakota demographer. The bureau's most recent estimate put the state population at 635,867 in July 2006, up about 1,262 from 2005 but down from 642,200 in 2000.

Only Vermont and Wyoming have fewer residents than North Dakota.

"This is the pitch: We have quality jobs available, quality of life, and a good, safe place to live and raise a family," Gov. John Hoeven said. "When it's North Dakota, you can always come home."

About 70 businesses are signed on to attend a job fair Saturday in Chicago. A similar fair is scheduled for Nov. 17 in Denver.

Each company must offer jobs paying more than $30,000 a year — with benefits — to participate. The jobs to be touted range from assistant attorney general to water resource engineer.

About 450 people showed up for a similar event in St. Paul, Minn., last fall, but officials have not been able to trace any relocations, Commerce officials said.

"This is a new activity for the state, trying to play matchmaker," Goettle said. "We know it's not the total answer to all worker-shortage challenges."

The plea to return is aimed at people like David and Amy Mayer, young professionals who want to raise a family closer to where they grew up. Many 20- and 30-year-olds have been leaving the state.

David Mayer, 31, moved to Minneapolis after receiving a landscape architect degree from North Dakota State University in Fargo.

"North Dakota was one of four states where you didn't need a license to call yourself a landscape architect, and NDSU is one of the biggest and best landscape architecture schools in the county," Mayer said, laughing at the irony.

State officials changed the licensing law, opening up opportunities that helped prompt the Mayers to move back to their hometown of Bismarck last year.

"We wanted to raise a family where we grew up and not in such a large city," Mayer said. "We felt like we wanted a little slower pace."

His wife, Amy, 31, who worked as a business analyst for a software company in Minneapolis, landed a similar job with the state when she returned, though the pay is not as high. Fuel and property taxes are more expensive in Bismarck but "it all comes out in the wash," she said.

"We thought it important to be close to our parents in a town that has good education, low crime and not very much traffic," Amy Mayer said. She gave birth to the couple's son, Noah, a few months after their move.

North Dakota has some competition from neighboring Western states in looking for people to fill jobs. In May, eight Rocky Mountain states reported a record low 3.4 percent unemployment rate, the U.S. Labor Department said.

"Obviously, outmigration is something everyone in North Dakota is worried about," Rathge said. "One should not be pessimistic and I'm not trying to be. But if we look at the data, we should be compelled to act."