'Freedom' not enough to fill South Dakota jobs: Local business leaders say there are hurdles with campaign

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SIOUX FALLS — Bob Douglas, touted as a success story of Gov. Kristi Noem’s “Freedom Works Here” workforce recruitment campaign in South Dakota, confirmed a few things during a recent interview with News Watch.

The 66-year-old recreational vehicle salesman does enjoy freedom, it turns out. And he loves South Dakota. He plans to move to the Sioux Falls area once he sells his house in southern California, maybe as early as next spring. Douglas was referenced in a Sept. 21 press release from the governor’s office as having “recently moved to South Dakota.”

As for being heralded by the governor’s staff as an example of Noem’s $6.5 million ad campaign drawing new residents to the Mount Rushmore State, well, that’s not exactly true either.

“I wasn’t really aware of the campaign,” said Douglas, whose experience in the RV industry led to him being hired by Parkston-based Trailmanor as a West Coast representative in 2022. He was then named the company’s national sales and marketing director in April 2023, several months before the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, launched the Freedom Works Here effort.

Douglas told News Watch that politics played a role in his decision to take the Trailmanor job. He called Noem a “rock star” and added that his community of Tehachapi, about 100 miles from Los Angeles, holds rallies supporting former President Donald Trump that he and his wife, Jennifer, attend.

“Once you get out into the valley and mountains and away from the big cities, you’ll find a whole lot of people that think the way that my wife and I think,” said Douglas.

For economic development corporations and businesses in South Dakota, many of which contributed $10,000 to help fund the Freedom Works Here campaign, Douglas’ story is an oversimplification of workforce recruitment.

Politically motivated individuals, many of them at or near retirement age, have helped boost South Dakota’s population by seeking more lenient tax structures or escaping what they perceived as heavy-handed COVID-era policies in Democratic-controlled states such as Minnesota, California and Colorado.

Net migration between July 1, 2021, and July 1, 2022, was one of the main reasons South Dakota ranked fifth in percentage of population growth (1.5%) among U.S. states during that span, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For South Dakota businesses, however, skilled workers between the ages of 25 and 35 are the “sweet spot” they would like to attract as the state’s unemployment rate hovers at 1.9%, with about 20,000 open jobs. The process of trying to persuade younger workers to take a job in South Dakota is a painstaking process that goes beyond political platitudes, said Watertown Development Co. executive director Chris Clifton.

“I know when I was 25 to 35 years old, I was not going to fill out a form and make a conscious, life-changing decision after talking to somebody on the internet a few times,” said Clifton. “If you look at the content of ‘Freedom Works Here,’ I mean, you’re kind of celebrating motherhood, apple pie and Chevrolet, so to speak. For a lot of people it’s like, how can you be against it? But there’s a lot of decision-making that goes into the process.”

Economic development corporations and some major employers were solicited for contributions by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in August to help extend a national run of Noem’s TV and social media commercials. That helped fund a $1.5 million “phase two” of advertisements that GOED said will roll out soon.

The commercials so far have shown Noem acting as plumber, electrician, welder and dentist to illustrate the need for more workers in South Dakota. The governor’s office said that the ads have “been viewed over 800 million times,” but GOED officials declined to share with News Watch the specific methodology or data used to arrive at that number.

“This is a combination of impressions — that is actual views — on both the TV ads and the digital ads,” Sarah Ebeling, GOED’s communications coordinator, wrote in an emailed response to requests for more information.

At a Nov. 13 meeting in Pierre, members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee pointed to the lack of hard data connecting new residents to the Freedom Works Here campaign, as opposed to those who made the decision for other reasons.

The legislative oversight is focused on more than $5 million in Future Fund dollars used to enlist the marketing and distribution services of Ohio-based Strategic Media Services and Tennessee-based Designsensory Inc. as part of the GOED initiative.

Economic development officials interviewed by News Watch said they are concerned about getting their money’s worth. As part of their investment, they received raw data of respondents who signed up or provided information through the Freedom Works Here website, a total of about 7,500 names and email addresses.

Noem’s office and GOED claim that more than 1,800 applicants “are in the final stages” of moving to South Dakota. Ebeling told News Watch that number is based on how many people created an account on the South Dakota Works website through the Department of Labor and Regulation to explore employment options in the state. It’s not clear how many will actually relocate.

“This campaign started June 21, 2023,” Ebeling wrote in her response. “Five months is a fairly short turnaround time to pick up your life and move to a different state.”

Economic development officials are sorting through data they received from GOED, trying to gauge which respondents to the Freedom Works Here campaign have serious interest in moving to South Dakota.

“We have not had anyone relocate yet, but I would qualify that to say that I didn’t expect it would happen this quickly,” said Michael Bokorny, CEO of the Aberdeen Development Corp. “We’re in uncharted territory here. There’s not really a technical manual on how to do this. We’re kind of making it up as we go.”

Several development officials said more work could have been done by GOED and the Department of Labor to filter data on the front end, such as itemizing by preference of community or profession. They also expressed surprise that they were asked to contribute to a campaign that they weren’t consulted on ahead of time and didn’t know much about until it launched.

“Before I made my way through the data, I wanted to know exactly what the Department of Labor did or what filtration they used,” said Clifton. “I got a bunch of gobbledygook that basically said, ‘We can’t tell you what we did, but we did all we could do.’ I’m a little suspicious about that because I’ve been involved in a lot of marketing campaigns that were very specific about impressions. There’s going to be a lot of heavy lifting on the back end to get this into a net result of who actually makes the move and takes a job.”

— This article was produced by South Dakota News Watch, a non-profit journalism organization located online at sdnewswatch.org.