Fargo-Moorhead flood control project advances amid worker shortage

construction workers next to a large concrete structure
Workers prepare to assemble large metal gates that will control the flow of water into flood diversion channel. Work on the 30 mile long channel starts this summer.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Construction is well underway on large concrete and metal structures that will control the flow of water during major flood events.

Last week workers began the process of assembling and installing the three 50-foot wide gates that will manage the flow of flood water into the diversion channel.

“It’s kind of a milestone day for the project,” said Duane Perkins, lead structural engineer on the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as he watched a half dozen workers maneuver a section of one gate with a crane.

a construction crane next to large concrete walls
Large metal gates in this structure near Horace, N.D., will control the flow of floodwater into a 30-mile-long Red River diversion channel when the project is completed in 2027.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

This part of the project is managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The water that will eventually flow through these gates will enter a 30-mile-long channel built by a private contractor. The $1 billion channel is the private portion of this public-private partnership designed to speed construction.

The channel construction will need as many as 1,000 workers, said Rick Holweger with ASN constructors.

"You could look at it as a bell curve. It'll go to a peak gradually and then gradually come down,” he said. “So 800 to 1,000 people won't be flocking to the Fargo-Moorhead area. And we'd really like to use as much local talent as possible."

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The jobs range from engineers to heavy equipment operators to laborers. The goal is to hire at least half of those workers locally, and 15 percent of workforce must be apprentices.

Finding hundreds of workers might be a challenge in an area with two percent unemployment and employers looking for thousands of workers.

gloved hands hold a hammer
A worker prepares parts for the assembly on April 27 of a structure near Horace, N.D., that will control the flow of floodwater into a diversion channel when the project is completed.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

At a recent briefing for local lawmakers, Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority Executive Director Joel Paulson said finding enough workers is a concern, but he's confident the contractor will find creative ways to fill the jobs.

"And I think the underlying thing that gives me a little comfort is that the developer has so much money tied up into this contract that they can't afford to lose on this contract. They can't afford to not meet their schedule," said Paulson who also remains confident the diversion will be ready for a spring flood in 2027.

Work on digging the 30-mile-long channel and building the 18 bridges and two aqueducts that will act as bridges to carry Red River tributaries across the channel will start later this summer.

The Fargo region now has about seven thousand job openings. A few hundred of those are in construction trades, according to Carey Fry with Job Service North Dakota. Filling the diversion project jobs will likely be a multi-year effort.

"It's not going to be like they're going to hire all those people at once, right at the beginning, you know what I mean? So it's going to be over time. And I'm hoping that that will help alleviate some of that crazy crunch time for hiring the people for the diversion," she said.

The project was delayed by several years of legal challenges which are now resolved, allowing construction to begin in earnest.

Fargo-Moorhead isn’t the only place construction workers are in high demand.

“We are facing a historic workforce shortage in Minnesota right now. And it is especially true for highway construction,” said Steve Grove, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Minnesota currently has about 1,700 job openings in heavy construction, according to DEED. “That's the highest level of demand we've seen for those jobs in the past 10 years,” said Grove.

There are currently about 850 construction job vacancies in northwest Minnesota.

Grove said filling what are often skilled jobs means finding and training workers who might not traditionally be part of the construction trades.

“I think that's important in so many areas of our state right now when you've got a workforce shortage, but also a lot of workers hiding in plain sight that employers might not traditionally reach out to, but we believe desperately need to, given the need for our economy to grow,” said Grove.

large concrete walls in a muddy field
This structure will control the flow of water into a Red River diversion channel through three large gates.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

“Workforce has been cited as the top challenge by our members for at least the past five years,” said Tim Worke, CEO of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. “Contractors are saying when we ask them, ‘well, what are you doing to attract and then retain (workers)?’ They're looking at paying higher compensation for workforce, but also looking at training and skill development.”

Construction workforce demands are fluid said Worke, depending on the types of projects in different areas. He expects the flood diversion project will challenge local contractors.

“They're going to have to up their game, and then also cast their net a little wider and a little farther, to find folks to do not only the work that you're doing on the (diversion) project, but the other work in the area. Their normal portfolio, if you will,” he said.

Economic growth outpacing the available workforce is nothing new for Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Joe Raso, but big projects like the $3 billion flood diversion, and a recently opened Amazon warehouse, add pressure on local employers looking to hire from a too-small pool of workers.

"We've seen some manufacturers who have raised their entry-level wages 35 percent or more just in the last two years," said Raso.

More than 80 percent of primary sector employers have plans to expand in the next 12 to 18 months, said Raso, “Essentially, the major thing that's holding them back from being able to meet that need is their workforce,” he said.

There are efforts to lure new workers to the area, but those are complicated by high demand in much of the country. Still, Raso said Fargo Moorhead does well at attracting workers compared to other markets across the country.

a worker leans over a row of concrete reinforcing bars
A worker prepares a portion of the diversion inlet structure for concrete on April 27.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Economic development officials are also trying to retain more of the college graduates who leave every year, while also looking for the workers of the future far from Fargo Moorhead.

“It's a kind of challenge that we can't address just by focusing in one area and I think the biggest area for us to fill that gap is in immigration. And so what are our national policies, what are we doing as a region to be open and welcoming?” said Raso. “All of these things together still may not get us to the finish line, but what other choice do we have?”

The flood diversion project is scheduled for completion in 2027, and local officials expect having permanent flood control will fuel economic growth and the need for even more workers.