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Job seekers find warm welcome in chilly Plains states

While the rest of the nation suffers with a jobless rate of around 8 percent, South Dakota's is about half that. And there's a range of jobs, from IT to banking to engineering.

Frustrated with Minneapolis' tight job market, Pam Perleberg sold her house and moved next door to North Dakota, where the wind-chill factor might be higher but unemployment is just 3 percent.

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Perleberg liked the idea of a smaller city with less traffic and the opportunity to live closer to her family, though she didn’t expect to land in Fargo on the eve of a January blizzard. North Dakota welcomed her with below-zero temperatures and fierce blasts of 30 mph winds.

“It was awful,” says the 42-year-old university fundraiser. “My mom and I joke that we were like the 'Cannonball Run' on I-94. I was driving the U-Haul, and she was trying to keep up with me in my car.”

Still, Perleberg has no regrets about packing up for the prairie, where employment is so plentiful that the state government website greets visitors with this enticement: “Find a Job in North Dakota. More than 20,000 job openings statewide.”

With a wealth of jobs and too few people to fill them, the Plains states are among the rare pockets in the nation on a hiring binge. North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, plus the western state of Utah are the top five states for job creation so far this year, according to a recent Gallup survey of more than 100,000 U.S. workers.

The five states at the bottom of Gallup's Job-Creation Index were Maine, Oregon, New Jersey, New York and Delaware.

Touting rock-bottom unemployment rates, recruiters in the remote states at the top of the list have ramped up efforts to entice skilled job seekers to relocate from economically depressed regions, where disillusionment can be more common than career opportunities.

“In 2008 and 2009, a lot of people were still waiting,” says Clinton Brown, a recruiter with the Experis-Manpower Group office in Sioux Falls, S.D. “Now people are a lot more willing to go where the jobs are. They see the jobs aren’t coming back.”

Brown should know. His firm is at ground zero of South Dakota’s unprecedented effort to lure skilled workers to the Mount Rushmore State, where the unemployment rate is just 4.4 percent -- far below the national rate of 8.1 percent.

After a series of a brainstorming sessions, Gov. Dennis Daugaard and South Dakota lawmakers launched an aggressive $5 million national recruiting program this spring. The state has hired the Milwaukee-based Experis-Manpower team to woo workers for manufacturing, engineering, information technology and other high-demand openings at South Dakota companies. The state's goal is to hire 1,000 skilled workers by 2014.

South Dakota (population 824,082) has about 11,000 job openings statewide, and the state's rapidly growing companies are clamoring for more workers, says Kim Olson, a policy adviser in the governor’s office. The state is big but sparsely populated, covering  more than 77,000 square miles but with an average of only 10 people for each of those square miles (New Jersey has 1,189 people per square mile).

“The demand outstrips the number of people we have,” says Olson. “We just recognized we can’t do this alone.”

New jobs are advertised for 30 days in South Dakota, giving homegrown workers first crack. Then they're forwarded to headhunters scattered among Manpower's 700 offices nationwide. So far, Olson says, more than 20 of the state’s largest companies have posted jobs with the fledgling South Dakota Workforce Initiative program. A separate effort is under way to attract medical professionals with inducements that include tuition reimbursement for new doctors willing to work in the state’s small towns.

In addition, the Dakota Roots website reaches out to former residents and graduates of South Dakota colleges who moved away. The site provides a service that might appeal to job seekers frustrated with impersonal Internet job boards: one-on-one assistance from career counselors who help applicants navigate job openings.                       

In Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city and cultural hub, recruiter Brown says his office interviews 10 to 14 job candidates each day and forwards the top applicants to state employers.  South Dakota’s lack of income tax, abundance of outdoor recreation and affordable housing are among the main selling points, especially for job seekers with family ties to the region. This year, Forbes ranked Sioux Falls No.1 in its list of best small places for business and careers. 

“We really try to match the skill set to the position,” Brown says. “If the candidate is in Florida or Ohio, I’m going to call them either way.”

In neighboring North Dakota, employers aggressively recruit talent, too, and troll job fairs in surrounding states for new workers.

With the nation’s lowest unemployment rate and an enviable state budget surplus, North Dakota is awash in oil, tech and agriculture jobs. National media reports have chronicled the employment explosion in northern wildcat oil towns like Williston, where rig workers reportedly can earn six-figure incomes with little or no experience.  But the economic boom has spread to cities across the state, including the capital of Bismarck, more than 230 miles away from the oil fields.

Overall, North Dakota reports the best job scene in the nation, with 42 percent of companies hiring and expanding the size of their workforces. The Gallup job index notes that the state’s positive jobs situation also is creating a construction demand to build new homes, roads, and schools.

“The funny thing about North Dakota is there are 'help wanted' signs everywhere,” says transplant William Phillips, 24, a former resident of Utica, N.Y. “Even places like Wal-Mart have to have job fairs.”

After graduating from college with no job in sight, Phillips boarded a Greyhound bus for Bismarck in 2009 with two suitcases, a credit card and about $600 in his pocket. He chose North Dakota based on its low unemployment rate. Within a few days of stepping off the bus, Phillips says, he landed an IT job at an office supply company with help from the state’s employment website. “Coming from the New York area, I was just happy to have a job.”

Three years later, Phillips is happily settled in Bismarck. He lives in a spacious one-bedroom apartment and this summer found a higher-paying IT job with the state of North Dakota’s judicial branch.

Phillips says more and more people are joining him in the move to North Dakota to find work. The downside, he says, is that housing is getting harder to find and rents are going up. He bemoans that his monthly rent has increased by $70 this year -- he now pays $560.

Pam Perleberg, who relocated to Fargo, N.D., in 2009, also talks about the tradeoffs of leaving a bigger city for a smaller community of 107,000. In Minneapolis, she says, she had a higher salary working in marketing. But her current job at North Dakota State University, coupled with Fargo’s easy-going lifestyle, are a better fit for her.  “The quality of life -- less commute, less stress, more family time -- confirms my decision every day,” she says.

Fargo earned the No. 2 spot on the Forbes list of best small places for business and careers, while Bismarck ranked No. 3.

For Phillips, the best part of living in North Dakota is knowing that even if he lost a job, he could always find another. The security represents a “huge burden taken off.”

“People seem happier here,” he says, “because you don’t have to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from.”

Donna Wares is a writer and editor based in Southern California. Follow her on Twitter @donnawares.

The upper Midwest is on a hiring binge. Workers who have moved to South Dakota for jobs say they never expected to end up there.