Fallout: Open Space, Open Jobs

Woman's Path to Work Ends in Rural, and Job-Rich, North Dakota

After five months of fruitless job searching, Ohio-resident Janet Morgan found work in a place she never intended: North Dakota.
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009

GLENFIELD, N.D. -- For the first time in five months, Janet Morgan was on her way to work -- a happy occasion diminished only by what now was required to get there. She packed 13 boxes into the bed of her rusted pickup, careful to include what she considered her "survival items." Family photographs would help her stave off loneliness. A 5,000-piece puzzle would prevent boredom. Instructional Spanish audiotapes would offer simulated conversation.

Morgan, 63, loaded all of it into the truck before dawn one recent Saturday and left her home in Zanesville, Ohio. She drove past the technology companies that had repeatedly denied her applications, continued out of Ohio and then through Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. She traveled for 20 hours and 1,032 miles until finally she came upon a field of hay barrels and prairie grass, a deserted horizon interrupted by one towering road sign: "Welcome to North Dakota -- Feel the Spirit!"

"Am I crazy?" Morgan asked shortly after she crossed into the state. "There's nothing out here but open space."

Open space and open jobs, which is why Morgan and thousands of others have moved to North Dakota during the past year. The state, once known primarily for its remoteness, is enjoying a new reputation as a haven amid economic collapse nationwide. It has the country's lowest unemployment rate at 4.2 percent, a budget surplus of $1.2 billion and more than 9,000 unfilled jobs. North Dakotans, conservative by nature, avoided risky loans that elsewhere wreaked havoc on banks and real estate, and the state's agriculture and energy industries continued to grow at record pace. Here, this is what passes for an economic problem: "We've been presented with the challenge of filling a wide array of open jobs," said Shane Goettle, the state's commerce commissioner.

North Dakota officials held a series of job fairs this year in states decimated by the recession and hired a talent recruiter to create a glitzy Web site to woo those looking for work. In June, Morgan stumbled upon the site and e-submitted a résumé that listed interests in communications, banking and teaching piano. She received an e-mail reply within hours: "Hi Janet. Yes, there will be a job for you here."

That is how Morgan ended up driving across North Dakota last week, the contents of her life packed into a 1991 Nissan with 229,000 miles on it and no power steering. Usually, Morgan likes to keep her speed at less than 50 mph. But on these straight, flat roads that sometimes stretched for miles without sight of another car, the 75-mph speed limit suddenly felt restrictive. She flipped through the radio dial and heard only static. Then she pulled out her cellphone and called her mother.

"I'm here," Morgan said.

"How is it?" her mother asked.

"I don't know yet, but it's different."

Morgan had started her job search with a more conventional vision. She grew up in California, taught piano while raising two children in Nevada, filed for divorce and decided to attend college in Ohio starting in 2004. She wanted to find a "grown-up" job. After graduating from Ohio University in March, she spent three weeks working with a career counselor and scanning local job listings. Nothing.

She lowered her expectations and applied for hourly-wage jobs across Ohio. Nothing. She called a few prospective employers in neighboring Michigan and West Virginia. Nothing. She filled her truck and took a road trip around the country to drop off applications near her mother in California, her daughter in Nevada and her son in Washington state. Nothing.

Finally, on her way home from the West Coast, she swung through Bismarck, N.D. She had never visited the state before, and was pleasantly surprised to find "some civilization, like an Olive Garden and a Best Buy." The local paper published articles about a thriving economy; dozens of businesses hung "Help Wanted" signs. Morgan collected a handful of job applications and drove back to Ohio. Maybe in North Dakota, she thought, there existed enough jobs to accommodate someone who was "short, fat and old." She applied for a low-wage position at a Bismarck area call center. A few days later, the company called to make an offer.

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