The 2000 census was kind to metro areas. They were
the places that grew. They attracted young workers and families.
Even in North Dakota, where the population essentially remained
unchanged, metro areas saw growth and good times.
Most of the metro counties in the district saw population growth
exceed 10 percent, whereas fewer than one in 10 rural counties could
say the same. In fact, four of those rural counties made the jump
to MSA status thanks to their growth and proximity to big cities.
A fifth countyMissoula County, Mont.grew fast enough
(22 percent) all by itself that it crossed over the rural threshold
to become the state's third MSA, its urban character legitimized
by increasing traffic congestion. "It's no longer a sleepy
town," said a local source.
But the days of strong population growth could be numbered for some
regional centers. Places like Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D.,
saw their population and economies grow in the 1990s, thanks in
no small part to the migration of young workers from nearby counties
looking for good jobs.
Metro areas have been vacuuming this labor pool for decades, and
some are about to discover the pool's literally drying up, according
to Richard Rathge, a professor at North Dakota State University
in Fargo and director of the State Data Center located there.
"We've really been cannibalizing the rural areas for employment,"
Rathge said. "The numbers are very compelling that even urban
centers are in trouble because they don't have the labor to draw
from [for future needs] and they're not even thinking about it."
Though Rathge was speaking mostly about the impact of empty rural
counties on area labor shortages, it's not a big leap to see the
effect of slower in-migration of young people on population growth.
Rathge and the Data Center crunched numbers on Great Plains states
dating back to 1950, and found that virtually the only counties
that saw continuous population growth in the Dakotas and Montana
were those with regional economic centers that attracted labor from
nearby counties. Counties surrounding those regional centers most
often saw either continuous decline or mixed economic activity (decline
The research also pointed out that in the last decade about half
of South Dakota counties, the great majority of North Dakota communities
and almost the entire eastern half of Montana lost population among
those 17 years old and youngertomorrow's workforce. Obviously
that's bad for host counties, but also bad for metropolitan regions
that have depended on out-migration from these areas for a continuous
supply of labor and new families. In some areas, Rathge said, the
number of entry-level aged workers has dropped 30 percent in the
last decade and will continue declining in coming years.
"Many don't know how bad the labor situation will be. We're
talking a significant problem," Rathge said. "The current
labor shortage we see is the tip of the iceberg, and there's nothing
behind it to suggest that it will get any better. In fact, it might