Labor and Population in Grand Forks

I love Mel Brooks’ movies and the questions Grand Forks keeps asking seem to recall the scene towards the end of Blazing Saddles when they rebuilt a town but forgot people. A share, and likely a significant share, of the labor market shortages and other issues comes down to the fact that we do not have the population in this town. The annual population estimate from the Census Bureau confirms this:

It is also not as if this is something new really. If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics data you can tease out a similar story, and also the issues we confront now. Grand Forks employment appears to reach a peak around 2017 and then experienced a gradual decline. Even the recovery after the COVID drop only looks to return to the previous trajectory.

A similar story is born out by the unemployment data. Unemployment declining with employment declining too seems pretty consistent with a decline in population, and labor force.

The levels of both unemployment are lower in absolute terms as well as we look at the numbers. The unemployment rate remains too low to be of much help attracting businesses. The consistent concern of existing businesses, we do not have enough workers, comes through clearly with the unemployment rate as it again declines towards 2.5%.

A question asked often has to do with those not coming back to work after COVID. For me this is a repackaging of the idea that some people do not want to work. I am sure we can find examples of this, but it is a “general” problem is the question we should be asking. Looking at the data, which is all pre-COVID, it looks like employment stayed stable over the last decade with a range for the ratio pictured of 54 to 57.

When you look at this consider the fact that roughly 1/3 of the population in the city of Grand Forks is above 65 and below 18. While many in that group likely work, we are probably seeing a good 20-25% more not working for reasons clearly attributable to age and lifecycle considerations. It does not take much more to get us to a full accounting of the status of the entire population.

Census data coming out this fall will tell us what is happening with population and the overall dynamics of the population. However the questions will still remain the same: how do we get more people to Grand Forks? The labor force situation and economic trajectory for the city hinge largely on answering that question correctly right now. This is a question we attempted to answer prior to the pandemic. However, the economic interruption of the pandemic does not change the central nature of the question.

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