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North Dakota: A haven amid economic collapse

Thousands of people have moved to North Dakota during the past year, finding work in a state once only known for its remoteness but now enjoying the nation's lowest unemployment rate.
Janet Morgan walks through downtown Glenfield, North Dakota, her new home.
Janet Morgan walks through downtown Glenfield, North Dakota, her new home.Michael Williamson / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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.

Morgan accepted immediately, desperate for the cash and open to adventure. But on the long drive -- as cities gave way to towns, towns gave way to farms, and farms gave way to a vast expanse of nothingness -- she started to wonder whether she had made the wrong decision. Where would she live? Why wasn't her cellphone getting service? Would she find a bowling league to join? Would her children ever travel this far to visit her?

She had a job and nothing else.

"I'm half-tempted to call this all a big mistake and turn around," she said.

But she kept driving until finally, at 6:45 a.m. Monday, she arrived in Bismarck and parked her truck in front of a red brick building adjacent to a Super Wal-Mart. She changed into a fancy blouse and black sneakers and reported to work. In a training session, she learned how to answer phone calls from people who had dialed 1-800 numbers to complain about their cereal. Inside her cubicle, one of dozens set in identical rows, she found a sterilized phone that rang with calls from California, Michigan and Ohio.

Anything is possible
While Morgan continued her shift, Sarah Johnson sat in her office across downtown Bismarck and sifted through one of the stacks of résumés piled on her desk. North Dakota's talent recruiter, Johnson, 29, had become one of the state's most ardent saleswomen. She grew up in Bismarck, moved away to Minneapolis, tired of the big city and returned home. What others considered North Dakota's flaws, she regarded only as assets. Cold winters made you appreciate dry, beautiful summers. Quietude sometimes allowed you to hear the distant howl of coyotes at night.

In corresponding with dozens of out-of-state job-seekers each day, Morgan repeated her favorite statistics: The state's economy grew by 7.3 percent in 2008. It ranks second to last in housing foreclosures and third to last in average credit card debt. Mining, construction and agriculture all recently surged by at least 10 percent. The government just passed $400 million in tax cuts.

Best of all were the 9,000 jobs -- a number made even more significant in a state where the population barely exceeds 640,000. Johnson had taken to answering most job queries with a variation of the same response: "In North Dakota," she said, "it is pretty much possible to do anything, anywhere."

She opened her e-mail to find the latest barrage of requests from the country's unemployed. A roughneck from Utah wanted an oil job near Williston, population 13,000, and Johnson replied with 57 openings. A banker from Washington state was hoping for a position in accounting, and Johnson sent along 500 possibilities. "There are more," she wrote, "but the search engine stops after it gets this many."

As she worked, Johnson continually updated a list of more than 1,000 people currently interested in moving to North Dakota -- a list that recently had grown by a few hundred names each week. She sent tourism booklets to each person who contacted her, encouraging them to "experience North Dakota," but lately it seemed job-seekers were more apt to recruit her. Some called six times each week. Others took vacations to Bismarck and stopped by her office.

But mostly, they e-mailed -- an unyielding flood of communication that totaled 100 notes per day, each more desperate than the last.

"I need to know what options there are for people trying to start a new life with little to no money," wrote an unemployed construction worker from Wisconsin.

Johnson wheeled her chair back from her desk and spoke her answer aloud. "Well," she said, "you've come to the right place."

New in town
A new life required a new home, so Morgan finished her first day of work and drove to see a house she had discovered on the Internet. The cheapest rental apartments in Bismarck cost $350 per month, and she figured she could save money by buying. She drove through cornfields for more than an hour before reaching Glenfield, a town of 75 bisected by two country roads. It sits 30 miles from the nearest restaurant and 45 miles from the closest grocery store. A few locals saw Morgan's unfamiliar truck and assumed she had lost her way en route to the local tourist attraction, a fenced-in albino buffalo a few miles down the road.

The house found on the Internet turned out to be a mobile home with an addition, unoccupied for three years and spotted with mildew. Water from the sink ran a murky brown, and Morgan worried about the presence of rats. But there were apple and apricot trees out front, plus a wishing well from where she could watch sunsets bathe the prairie in gold. She decided to buy it.

"I always thought that if I won the lottery I would buy a big piece of land in the middle of nowhere and put a fence around it," Morgan said. "Maybe this is as close as I'm going to get."

What happened next made Morgan realize just how different life would be in North Dakota. The purchase price: $7,500. The down payment: $100. The closing date: How about right now, if the local lawyer is still in his office? The paperwork: one short form, requiring one signature. The lawyer's fee: $10.

'Where are you from'
Fabian Noack, the area's only lawyer for 48 years, was indeed in his office, sitting at a desk and listening to music on a record player. Morgan walked in with the father and son who had agreed to sell her the house, and Noack stood up to greet them.

"You must be the new woman," he said to Morgan. "Where are you from?"


"Really? Ohio?"

"Yes. Ohio."

"That's a ways. What are you doing here?"

"I moved for a job."

"All the way from Ohio?"


"Okay. Well then, welcome. I believe you'll find things a little simpler up here."

Fifteen minutes later, Morgan owned a home in Glenfield. She drove back into town, passing the post office and general store that formed Main Street. It was getting dark, so she carried a few of her boxes into the house. She placed her family photos and a college diploma on a shelf in the living room and then sat on a stool in her dark kitchen.

"It's so quiet in here," she said.

She wondered if there was a friend she could call, then remembered that her cellphone lacked a signal. She thought about turning on the television, then figured it would receive only a few channels.

Out of ideas, Morgan stood up to get ready for bed. She picked an outfit for the next day and set her alarm clock for 4:15 a.m. The ring would awaken her to a dark house, to an empty living room, to an unfamiliar town and a state filled with strangers -- to her second day with a job.