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Study outlines population shift in Divide County

Posted 10/18/16 (Tue)

Study outlines population shift in Divide County

By Cecile Wehrman
Divide County is never going back to the way things were.
That’s the message from a couple of North Dakota State University researchers who recently released the results of a study contracted by Vision West ND.
Researchers Nancy Hodur and Dean Bangsund looked at trends related to population, housing and workforce since 2012, as well as at the ways projections might be impacted by low, moderate and high oil prices. 
Regardless of oil price, said Hodur, “We’re not going to go back down to where we were before.”
After eight decades of steady population decline, the narrative people tell about Divide County must change.
“Yes, oil and gas industry activity has moderated substantially,” Hodur said, “but I don’t think the sky has fallen. Economic conditions are still strong and we’ve seen some reversal of trends that have been falling for decades.”
Divide County is among counties in the state where growth has been more  modest, however, Hodur said, in the past five years, Divide County has reversed the population losses it saw between 2000 and 2010.
More important than growth, is that the state is getting younger and that includes Divide County. That’s a profound shift that will impact the demands on cities, counties and school districts, but also, how local leaders set priorities for the institutions they serve.
For the first time since the early 1980s, the number of children under age 14 has grown. The number of people age 25 to 44 has also grown, “and they’re having children.”
The state has grown 18 percent in 15 years. That’s compared to an estimated 23 percent growth in Divide County.
Future growth will be driven by both inmigration and natural births, “and that’s something we haven’t seen for quite a long time.”
With 71 percent of all people over age 16 already in the workforce, “we have very little excess capacity. So if we start adding jobs, we have to add people to fill them,” said Hodur.
There is both a substantial non-resident workforce and a substantial commuting workforce, the study identified.
“We still have a very low unemployment rate,” and where jobs went away or overtime was cut, “Those folks just went back home,” she said.
North Dakota still has more jobs than active resumes statewide, according to Job Service.
“Production has declined, but production is still eight times what it was in 2007,” said Hodur.
“The take away is you have a much larger workforce, our population has grown, and the population characteristics have changed.”
Where population goes from here is a moving target tied largely to the price of oil, said Bangsund.
“It’s important to keep in mind the economic climate is continuing to change so it is very difficult to predict,” he said.
However there are also many more statistical tools available now than were available in 2012, when Vision West ND first took a stab at a set of projections for future population growth and housing needs.
“Birth rates are trending upwards and death rates are trending downward,” said Bangsund, reversing a long term trend of lower population.
And even under the low oil price projection model, Divide County is projected to hold its present population.
“It’s not robust,” said Bangsund, but Divide County would have a stable population to the year 2040.
Oil service jobs -- people monitoring and maintaining oil wells -- will be the ones sustaining the population and even countering a considerable drop in the number of farmers.
If prices should rebound more strongly than is anticipated, “We can be right back into a situation like we had before the downturn,”  though Bangsund said production efficiencies should make it less chaotic than North Dakota experienced during the height of the oil boom.
Under a moderate oil price scenario, Divide County would experience a 7.5 percent population jump, gaining 188 people. That translates to a 0.3 percent annual population increase. That may sound like a small percentage, but the report calls even that increase “challenging.”
On the other hand, the bigger North Dakota’s oil industry becomes, the fewer people are needed to sustain it. Greater job specialization in the industry and a tendency toward more of the workforce commuting will also have an impact.
“The workforce has shown over the last eight years less propensity to reside in the area,” so while oil price and population growth is linked, not everyone who works in the oil field in the future will reside in the state full time.
“We can have situations where the local workforce is greater than what we need but in most cases the workforce is less than what we need,” he said, and many of the workers will come, as they did during the boom, from people who continue to live out of state.
Under a high price scenario, Divide County is projected to experience a 16 percent increase in population by 2039, gaining 399 people for a total population of 2,903.
During that span, the number of people less than 25 years old will increase 40 percent, while the number of people age 25 to 44 increases 77 percent.
Already, however, local leaders are expressing some skepticism with the study’s findings.
“I don’t know how they can even make those projections,” said Tom Dhuyvetter, a member of the Divide County Jobs Development Authority.
At the same meeting last week, County Commissioner Gerald Brady said he doesn’t put a lot of stock in the study.
“They’ve done a lot of this in the past. It hasn’t been accurate,” he said.
County commissioners are resistant to a call for $1,000 a year for  Vision West ND, even though jobs developer KayCee Lindsey said she feels the group is doing a lot of much-needed work in the region.
Commissioner Doug Graupe said Lindsey should bring a formal proposal to the county, but he feels the city of Crosby probably benefits as much or more from the work the group is doing.