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Economy's woes spreading to region

Patrick Case relocated to Northwood, N.D., for job security 13 months ago after being laid off from his job as a used-car lot manager. A month ago he and 25 co-workers were laid off at Northwood Mills, where he'd been employed since September. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

GRAND FORKS - Thirteen months ago, Patrick Case was laid off from his job as a used-car lot manager in Florida.

"The housing boom was going south, which affected the car business, which cost me my job," he said. "Ultimately, I had to sell my house and the whole nine yards."

He returned to his North Dakota roots, specifically to Northwood, where his father lived. Family was one reason for relocating. Job security was another.

"My research showed that North Dakota hadn't been hit yet by the bad economy," Case said. "I figured I could find gainful employment here."

He found it in September at Northwood Mills, a canola-crushing plant. But the job was short-lived. A month ago, he and 25 co-workers were laid off when the plant was shut down. The faltering economy cut into the demand for petro-leum products, which had a domino effect on the market for oilseeds used for biodiesel.

For Case, this once-insulated region was not the safe haven he had anticipated. The most recent North Dakota Job Service statistics show that he isn't alone.

January claims high

January found 6,646 initial unemployment claims filed to Job Service statewide. That's a 44 percent increase from the 4,684 initial claims filed in January 2008. December had about 2,500 more initial claims than December 2007. The most accurate way to gauge unemployment is comparing months because many jobs are seasonal.

The Grand Forks office has seen a more dramatic increase, from 315 unemployment filings in January 2008 to 499 in January of this year, a 58 percent hike.

"I can't say whether that's indicative of the national downturn headed our way," said Darren Brostrom, the state director of unemployment insurance. "There could be a large percentage that is off for a short furlough. Who make up that 184 jump in claims would tell more of a story than the number itself.

"But 184 is a significant increase."

The hike in unemployment claims appears to run counter to Thursday's announcement of the state and region's unemployment rates. Statewide, and in the Grand Forks region, the December unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, a microscopic increase from the 3.3 percent for both 12 months ago.

But those unemployment rates were computed from statistics through Dec. 13.

"As we all know, a lot has happened (in the eight weeks) since then," said Keith Reitmeier, Job Service regional manager in Grand Forks. "Most em-ployers make these type of decisions after the holiday season, so the official numbers are lagging."

Major Grand Forks employers LM Glasfiber and Cirrus Design are among the local companies with layoffs, some temporary, some not. Manufacturing jobs, such as those offered by LM Glasfiber and Cirrus, have been hardest hit nationally because of a drop in the demand for their products. North Da-kota has 900 fewer manu-facturing jobs than a year ago, based on December statistics.

Manufacturing isn't alone in its struggles. Altru Health System announced a hiring freeze and executive pay cuts. And national firms with local units such as Macy's also have cut jobs.

The economic slowdown has been felt in northwestern Minnesota, with snowmobile makers Po-laris of Roseau and Arctic Cat of Thief River Falls each having 100 layoffs. Phoenix Industries, one of Crookston's major employers for more than 20 years, apparently went out of business last month.

More than expected

Reitmeier's staff members check rumors of layoffs with employers, so he was expecting a rise in unemployment claims. But January's 58 percent increase in his region has more dramatic than he anticipated.

"This might indicate that there are businesses laying off a few people and those people don't need our help to file," he said.

Brostrom saw the unemployment shift begin in late summer, with a more dra-matic turn starting in November.

"My nine years in this job have shown a lot more ups than downs," he said. "But the biggest down period I've seen in those nine years has been in the last two to three months."

Although the number of available jobs is down about 15 percent from a year ago, the Grand Forks district alone has 1,000 jobs listed. But the overwhelming majority are part-time and/or low-paying service positions.

"We'd like more of them to be in the breadwinner category," Reitmeier said.

Still good signs

Even with the recent job losses, employment numbers are high historically. December figures showed that North Dakota had 2,000 more workers than 12 months ago. Only Wyoming had a lower unemployment rate.

The Grand Forks Metropolitan Statistical Area, made up of Polk and Grand Forks counties, had 200 additional workers in December than 12 months ago.

Those figures can be attributed to rapid job growth in the first half of 2008. A clearer picture of unemployment will come when January statistics in the first week of March.

"When you compare us to other states, we're in very good shape," Brostrom said. "It's just that we've gone from a great situation where employers were looking for workers in almost every field. So this is a drastic change."

Reitmeier said that 80 percent of recent layoff victims said they expect to eventually return to their job. "We're hearing a lot about employers being more cautious and furloughs being extended longer," he said.

And employment help might be arriving soon. "Our ears are perked up about what this federal stimulus package might bring," he said. "But, with North Dakota's low unem-ployment compared to other states, it likely will mean less money than most states receive."

Retraining a reality

Case, like 13 months ago, is shifting career gears. He's taking advantage of a Job Service retraining program to become an over-the-road truck driver. He'll start the six-week course in March.

"I did a lot of research online about jobs," Case said. "Everywhere I looked, the openings were for three jobs - doctors, teachers and truck drivers. I've always wanted to be a brain surgeon, but I figured Job Service wouldn't pay for my education for that."

Reitmeier said Job Service offers many services to help the unemployed. They include basics such as job interview skills, drawing up a resume and help with applying for jobs online.

Computer training is available because many jobs require at least basic skills. Another program has Job Service paying part of the salary while a new hire is being trained.

"Our ultimate goal is to get everyone working again," Reitmeier said.

Case retired as a chief petty officer after 22 years in the Navy before he be-came a car sales manager. So he said he was "kind of devastated" when he lost his Northwood job.

"I'm 49 years old and never, ever, in my life have I collected unemployment before," he said. "But you have to do what you have to do."

Case figures to have his license before an April 21 job fair at the Alerus Cen-ter.

"Three years in a row, we've had a record number of employers attend our job fair," Reitmeier said. "This year, we think there will be a record number of job-seekers."