Bernie Dardis remembers a time when his sign company was looking to hire a lead graphic artist and got 63 applications from four states.

That was back in the 1990s, when the Fargo-Moorhead job market was much less competitive than it is today. Now, he said, a similar job posting is likely to draw just one or two applicants.

Dardis, now the mayor of West Fargo, is an enthusiastic backer of a $5 million initiative called Fueling Our Future, a partnership between The Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

The effort, announced in May, is backed by the cities of Fargo and West Fargo, which each have committed $400,000 in public money.

“It would have a very positive effect on the entire region,” he said. “It felt right to myself and my fellow commissioners.”

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Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said the metro area continually struggles to fill jobs.

“Workforce is our No. 1 issue,” he said. “It keeps coming up. We need to hire people in this community. We need to attack it more aggressively.”

Thirty-four private employers have pledged another $3.3 million, with total commitments of $4.1 million toward the $5 million goal.

Recently, Fargo topped a list compiled by ZipRecruiter of the “hottest job markets” in 2020 in a ranking citing the metro area’s rapid job growth rate — job postings increase at a rate of 55% per year — and favorable ratio of job openings to candidates.

But with a 2.6% unemployment rate, employers continue to struggle to fill positions.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve got to do this on our own,” Dardis said. “Somebody else isn’t going to do this for us.”

The centerpiece of Fueling Our Future is the proposed $30 million Cass County career workforce academy, a partnership coordinated by the North Dakota State College of Science that includes four public school districts: Fargo, West Fargo, Central Cass and Northern Cass.

Separately, the Moorhead Area Public Schools district is pursuing its own career academy, a public-private concept uniting K-12, technical education and employers that has found wide acceptance all over the country.

One common misconception is that Fargo-Moorhead pay levels aren’t competitive, with surveys showing an average $26.64 hourly wage, said Carey Fry, manager of Job Service North Dakota’s Fargo Workforce Center.

Almost a third of job openings paid more than $30 per hour, while more than 30% pay $15 to $19.99 per hour, according to Job Service figures. Only 0.3% pay $10 to $14.99 per hour.

“The truth is, employers in our area are not getting away with paying minimum wage,” Fry said. “It’s not necessarily because of pay that we aren’t getting workers here.”

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To be competitive for workers, employers should strive to offer attractive benefits, workplace culture and amenities in addition to higher pay, she said.

Over the past year, the Fargo area job market has had an average of 4,781 job openings, a number that has been stable in recent years, she said.

“Things have not gotten drastically better or drastically worse since we pulled out of the recession,” she said.

The occupations most in demand are health care practitioners and technicians, with 637 openings, as well as office and administrative support, with 601 job listings, according to Job Service. Area employers also were looking for large numbers of salespeople, managers and workers involved in transportation and material moving.

“We have a lot of people coming in our doors from all over the country,” Fry said. The Fargo native said years ago most of the workforce had ties to the area. “That’s not true anymore.”

As part of Fueling Our Future, an effort is underway to establish a business accelerator focused on agricultural technology, with the intent of helping young companies or technologies get tested and developed through access to mentors, investors and other support.

That initiative likely will involve many partners, including the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Emerging Prairie and the EDC’s Growth Initiative Fund, along with Fueling Our Future, EDC President Joe Raso said.

Since farming began in the Red River Valley, the area has been a hotbed of agricultural innovation, now exemplified by efforts to establish a fully autonomous Grand Farm, Raso said.

“This region has this kind of DNA, so what can we do to build off this DNA that the region has had since its inception?” he said.

Another strategy of the Fueling Our Future initiative will develop several certified, “shovel-ready” sites that would be primed for development, such as a 40-acre parcel of land, Raso said. The group is working with a leading site selection consultant.

Yet another pillar is to improve air service and learn what the business community can do to help, he said. And there is also a program called Campus FM that will strengthen ties with the metro area’s thousands of college students.

Although multipronged, Fueling Our Future is focused on a few targeted strategies, Raso said.

“It’s not all over the board and it’s not shoot at everything that flies,” he said. “It’s not just saying we’re going to improve our workforce.”