FARGO — Ben Spaeth planned on a career in law enforcement after graduating from West Fargo High School. He studied two years at the University of North Dakota.

But he grew concerned about the career opportunities that would be waiting for him after graduation. He surprised his fellow university students when he announced that he would switch career paths — and train to be a welder.

“It just really wasn’t for me,” Spaeth said, referring to studying criminal justice. After finishing his sophomore year, he enrolled in the welding technology program at the North Dakota State College of Science’s Fargo campus.

“I have loved it ever since,” he said. He works nights at a local steel tank manufacturer and will graduate in May.

In making his career switch, from a field requiring a four-year degree to one he can enter with a two-year degree, Spaeth is preparing to join an overlooked segment of the workforce that produces 65% of North Dakota’s economic output and accounts for 61% of the state’s gross domestic product, according to recently released figures.

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North Dakota is among states that have gained "good jobs" for workers without four-year college degrees, and one of a relatively few states that saw an increase in manufacturing jobs between 1991 and 2015, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

The study defined a good job as paying $35,000 a year as the minimum earnings for those under age 45 and $45,000 as the minimum for older workers. Good jobs had median earnings of $55,000 annually.

The study found that 49% of good jobs in North Dakota were held by workers without a bachelor’s degree, compared to an average of 45% for the U.S. Between 1991 and 2015, blue-collar jobs in North Dakota increased 88%, the third-highest growth in the nation, behind Utah and South Dakota, the study found.

Similarly, the study found, skilled jobs in North Dakota during the period grew by 156%, also the third-highest growth rate. Among the study’s key findings for North Dakota:

  • 41% of workers in North Dakota held what it considered to be good jobs, including 59%, or 90,000, who had good jobs without a four-year college degree.

  • The median earnings of non-bachelor’s degree workers with good jobs in 2015 was $57,000.

  • Among those with non-bachelor’s good jobs, 53% earned $55,000 or more, 29% earned between $45,000 and $55,000, and 18% earned between $35,000 and $45,000.

Ben Spaeth uses a plasma cutter Wednesday, Feb. 5, on the Fargo campus of the North Dakota State College of Science. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Ben Spaeth uses a plasma cutter Wednesday, Feb. 5, on the Fargo campus of the North Dakota State College of Science. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Not just 'arcs and sparks'

Welding technology, the kind Spaeth is studying, is no longer limited to “arcs and sparks,” but now involves robot-controlled welding, laser welding and cutting torches that are controlled by computers — making the trade a member of the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — workforce.

Students who graduate from the welding program at NDSCS who find jobs around Fargo are hired with a starting wage around $18 per hour, said Lee Larson, a welding instructor. For a full-time worker, that’s about $37,440 a year.

Experienced welders in the area earn up to $25 an hour, or about $52,000 per year, but those working on pipeline projects can earn around $70,000 per year, he said.

Since those in training for the trades graduate with modest debt — or, in cases with sponsorships from their employers, none at all — it’s a more affordable path to a good paycheck, Larson said.

Although industry is clamoring for two-year technicians, NDSCS enrollment has been stable in recent years. “We’re recruiting all the time,” he said. “We’re in every high school in North Dakota.”

North Dakota was one of 10 states examined in a national study by 10 science and technology groups who released their findings under the social media banner “Science is US” that found that 67% of the nation’s jobs are supported by science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In North Dakota, the STEM-related workforce generated $4 billion in federal tax revenues and $3.4 billion in state and local tax revenues, making STEM-supported economic activity the primary driver of tax revenue in the state, according to the study, led by the Aerospace Industries Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union and American Physical Society, among other groups.

Ben Spaeth and instructor Lee Larson talk in the shop Wednesday, Feb. 5, on the Fargo campus of the North Dakota State College of Science. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Ben Spaeth and instructor Lee Larson talk in the shop Wednesday, Feb. 5, on the Fargo campus of the North Dakota State College of Science. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Improving the pipeline

North Dakota political and business leaders have been working in recent years to improve the pipeline of workers in a state that has an estimated 15,000 job openings — some peg the number at closer to 30,000, since employers often don't advertise for multiple openings for the same position.

Public school districts in Cass County, for example, have been working with NDSCS and business sponsors to build a $30 million career workforce academy that prepares K-12 students for career tracks in demand by area employers.

NDSCS’s annual career fair this month drew 197 employers looking to hire graduates, with all but two of the college’s academic programs in high demand, said Jane Vangsness Frisch, vice president for student affairs.

Some graduates in particularly high demand, such as diesel technicians or agriculture technicians trained in precision agriculture, have starting salaries of about $90,000, she said. Often, graduates of those programs are sponsored by employers who cover their tuition costs.

“These are great jobs,” Vangsness Frisch said. “These middle-skilled jobs are growing exponentially. The demand is getting more urgent day by day, year by year.”

Spaeth plans to continue his education after graduating from the welding technology program at NDSCS in May. He plans to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in project management at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

In deciding to switch from criminal justice, he concluded the job demand and pay potential in welding were more attractive. “It would be awesome working with people,” he said, “but it would be hard to get a job.”

After graduating from the project management program, Spaeth hopes to get a job managing welding operations in a factory setting.

“I think production is really fascinating,” he said. Also, he added, he always could fall back on his welding skills and find a wide variety of jobs. “Really, the possibilities are endless.”