NORTH DAKOTA (KXNET) — North Dakota has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, yet Job Service North Dakota estimates there are up to 40,000 jobs currently available here in the state.

The issue is a workforce shortage — there are jobs but not enough qualified people to work the jobs. The solution? Well, that’s the challenge. Is this something North Dakota’s universities can help with?

North Dakota Senator Kevin Cramer thinks it is.

“I’d say how can our universities and all of our education institutions be helpful, because I think there is a disconnect between what degrees and skills and stuff are provided by a lot of universities and what skills and gifts and talents are in high demand in the workplace,” he noted.

Cramer believes we need to have a better connection between employment opportunities and what we’re teaching students. But that’s only a small part of the solution.

“How do we bring people here? How do we attract people to North Dakota?” he asked. “North Dakota has enjoyed tremendous growth, one of the fastest growing per capita states in the country for the last better than a decade now. That’s because there’s been so much opportunity. But the jobs are growing faster than the population is growing, even though we have quite a young population.”

One answer to that gap is attracting immigrants, an idea Cramer says gets him into political trouble with his Republican colleagues.

“One of the solutions is to have a better legal immigration policy,” he explained. “The United States provides work visas or legal immigration status for a million people a year. No other country does that. But only 15% of those 1 million people come to the country with a skill set or an education that’s in demand in our workforce, in our economy. The other, you know, 85% basically won a lottery or they have family here, but they don’t necessarily bring a skill, whether it’s a nursing skill or high-tech skill or agricultural skill or manufacturing skill. There are caps on all of those types of visas and, again much like the education system, the immigration system doesn’t meet the economic demands.”

Cramer says he’s been a champion for removing the caps on H-1B visas, which are the typical visas used for working. That would benefit the United States in general and North Dakota in particular.

“We have about 5% of our doctors, medical doctors in this state, come from foreign countries. A lot of them are from India, China, Pakistan, but mostly India. India is where we get a lot of our surgeons, particularly our specialists, and there’s still a lot of openings. It seems crazy that we wouldn’t provide more flexibility in all of our visa programs,” Cramer said.

Cramer says we should be able to make adjustments in an immigration system that allows those people to come into the United States.

“We don’t want people to come in and necessarily compete with our own university graduates and our own citizens, but that’s not the case anymore because we are such a fast-growing, in North Dakota particularly, economy, that our workforce can’t keep up with it,” Cramer added.

However, Cramer notes making those changes in the immigration system is taking a back seat to the problems with people illegally crossing into the U.S. at the southern border.

“Right now with the southern border, the mess that it is, most people, particularly Republicans, want to fix that problem before we fix the legal immigration challenge,” Cramer noted. 

He says he’s a strong advocate for doing both at the same time — fix the southern border and fix the immigration system.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July, North Dakota had 26,000 job openings, compared to 28,000 openings the month before.