By James MacPherson
BISMARCK, N.D. -- Home improvement retailer Menard Inc. says that it will hire workers from its home base in Wisconsin and fly them to North Dakota to staff a store in Minot, which is near the state's booming oil patch, a region that has more jobs than takers.
The company said in a statement that it plans to hire 50 workers in Eau Claire, Wis., where it has its headquarters, and fly them weekly to Minot, which is also in the middle of an unprecedented building boom as it recovers from record flooding last year.
Menard, which has more than 200 stores in the upper Midwest, said this would be the first time it has flown employees to work weeklong stints, housing them in hotels, but that it "is going to be a permanent solution for as far as we can see."
Minot is North Dakota's fourth-largest city and had been growing rapidly even before the flooding that swamped some 4,100 homes and displaced thousands of residents. Its population grew from 36,500 in 2000 to about 41,000 in 2010, U.S. Census data show. City officials say the present population is nearing 50,000.
That means there's strong demand for building materials. Minot store manager Phil Graef said that business is the busiest in the five years that he's headed the store, the only big-box building supply retailer in town.
"We were starting to stay even with the oil boom, and then the flood happened," Graef said. "Now, we're trying to get ahead of both of those."
Finding workers to keep up has been tough, he said.
"Everybody has a 'now hiring' sign in their window," Graef said.
Businesses struggle to attract workers throughout North Dakota, which has some 22,000 more jobs than takers and the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, at 2.4 percent, Job Service North Dakota data show. The unemployment rate in Minot is 2.3 percent.
"It's going fast and furious here," Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman said. "As it is, there is not a big enough labor force around here, and as it gets colder there is less of one."
The unemployment rate in Eau Claire is 6.3 percent, lower than the national rate of 7.9 percent in October. Mike Schatz, the city's economic development director, said its economy is strong and that there are job opportunities in the town of about 65,000.
"It's not like people can't find work here -- there are plenty of expansions going on," Schatz said.
But Menard spokesman Jeff Abbott said there was good interest when the company held a job fair in Eau Claire earlier this month to hire workers for its Minot store. Menard intends to train the workers at Wisconsin stores and send them to Minot "as soon as possible," he said.
Menard has offered a starting wage of $13 an hour at the Minot store, well above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which prevails in Wisconsin. It's also the minimum wage in North Dakota, but most jobs there pay more. A listing for a pizza delivery driver in Minot was advertised Thursday at $15 to $20 per hour, plus a $250 signing bonus.
Competition for the Menard jobs has been tough in Wisconsin.
Pam Weaver, of Eau Claire, said her husband, Gary, had his heart set on one of the positions with Menard in Minot but was told Thursday that he wouldn't be hired. No reason was given, she said.
"It's frustrating," Pam Weaver said. "He seemed disappointed."
Gary Weaver, who was laid off from his job as a telemarketer several weeks ago, was back at the unemployment office Thursday, filling out job applications, said his wife, a 55-year-old claims auditor for a health insurance company.
"Who would have thought that we'd be in our 50s and struggling?" Pam Weaver said. "We're not the only ones. We've had three different friends who have lost businesses in town in the last five years."
Zimbelman, the Minot mayor, and Menards store manager Graef said they hope some Wisconsin workers eventually decide to make Minot their permanent home instead of commuting more than 500 miles by air to get there.
But Eau Claire's Schatz has another idea.
"We would hope just the opposite," Schatz said. "We want them to bring that North Dakota money back to Eau Claire."
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