Jobs abound in the Dakotas | Don Brunell

If you are looking for a family-wage job these days, there is no better place to look than the Dakotas . . . but for entirely different reasons.

If you are looking for a family-wage job these days, there is no better place to look than the Dakotas . . . but for entirely different reasons.

While both states rely on agriculture, North Dakota’s Bakken oil field is driving that state’s economy, which boasts a 2.7 percent unemployment rate.  It is the lowest among the 50 states – and there are thousands of jobs unfilled.

Propelled by well-paying jobs in its western oil-producing counties, the state’s average annual pay has jumped a whopping 44 percent since 2007. Workers in the oil and natural gas industry earned an average salary of $111,451 last year.

South Dakota’s jobless rate is 3.8 percent, far below the national rate of 6.1 percent, and about half the unemployment rate in California and Illinois. Worse yet, nearly 30 metropolitan areas have unemployment rates of over 10 percent.  Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) proudly points out, “During the last five years, our state’s economy has grown by 25 percent compared to the national growth rate of 14 percent.”

South Dakota has no oil to speak of, but it does have banking. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., South Dakota holds more bank assets—$2.5 trillion—than any other state.

Why is that?  During the economic recession of the early 1980s, South Dakota elected officials were desperate to attract outside businesses, so they changed the state’s usury laws to eliminate the cap on interest rates and fees.

In 1981, Citibank immediately moved its credit card operations to Sioux Falls. Wells Fargo and other banks soon followed.  Citibank now employs more than 2,900 workers in the city, and it anchors a financial sector that provides more than 16,000 jobs.  The city’s population has grown from 80,000 to 164,000.

Sioux Falls’ success captured the attention of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.  The host of the Sunday morning program “GPS” is airing a series called, “Where America Works” highlighting five cities.  The message:  Washington, D.C. may be broken, but problems are being solved in towns all across America.

Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether (D) told Zakaria, “It’s pretty simple, you infuse compromise, communicate and find common ground and then you get things done. I mean how much more simple can that be and that is absolutely what’s not occurring in Washington, D.C.”

Huether, a former banking executive, has managed South Dakota’s largest city to prosperity.  Sioux Falls has run a budget surplus over the last four years and has banked a rainy day fund equal to one third of the city’s operating revenue.

Through Heuther’s management, creativity and problem-solving approach, city leaders have solved difficult issues that are mired in political gridlock in many big cities.

For example, he worked with the city’s 1,100 workers to reform the pension program without a strike.  Compare that to the situation in Detroit where the city is bankrupt and has $9.9 billion in unsecured liabilities — including pensions, retiree health care and losses from a disastrous debt deal.

He built an events center with low-interest bonds in which 87 percent of the construction workers were from his metro area.  And the city is spending surplus tax revenues repaving streets, expanding thoroughfares and replacing sewer and water lines.

While it may be fashionable for politicians to stomp on the banking and energy industries today, the Dakotas are prime examples that those industries are putting people to work and increasing tax revenues for schools, police and fire protection, parks and public assistance to those truly in need.

The successes in North and South Dakota send a strong message to our nation’s leaders. With solid management, collaboration and an unshackled economy, America will once again be a place where people can work, support a family and take that hard-earned vacation to Disneyland.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at

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