The nation’s unemployment rate has been hovering at nearly nine percent since 2009. But not every state is suffering an employment crisis. In the remote, windswept state of North Dakota, job fairs often bustle with more recruiters than potential workers. The North Dakota unemployment rate hasn’t risen above five percent since 1987. In the state's oil country, unemployment hovers at around two percent, and pretty much everyone who wants a job—as long as they are old enough and not incarcerated—is employed. North Dakota has either tied for or had the lowest unemployment in the country since 2008.
The job base of the state (population 672,500) has grown five percent in the past two years. Even more astonishing, there are over 16,000 unfilled jobs, and projections indicate that 45,000 more workers will be needed in the next two years. Of those jobs, one out of three will be in oil and gas.
The Booming West
If you are willing to endure the blazing hot summers and bitterly cold winters, come to western North Dakota, young (or not) man (or woman) and you can get a job. Michael Ziesch has worked with Job Service of North Dakota for the past 15 years and is currently a manager in the Labor Market Information Center. “The average wage in oil and gas is $80,000 plus overtime, and there will likely be plenty of that,” said Ziesch. Development of the massive Bakken oil field in the western part of the state has tapped out the local workforce.
If you are not interested in an energy job, consider retail. Employers are paying $15 an hour for convenience store employees and fast food workers. Drive through any community in the area and you will be hard pressed to find a store front devoid of a sign shouting “Help Wanted, Now!” It seems that everything in the state these days ends with an exclamation mark, and for a state filled with unassuming, hardworking, family-centered kind of folks, it’s a little disconcerting.
New North Dakotans
Job seekers from outside the state are flocking to Williston, the unofficial capital of the oil boom, located in the remote northwestern corner of North Dakota. The population here has grown from 12,500 to an estimated 22,000 in the past five years.
Williston is home to 350 oil service companies. Willistonlife.com, an employment and informational website built with the objective of attracting workers to the area, boasts that at any given time, over 1,200 job openings are available in the Williston area alone. On its home page, the website beckons to the nation’s unemployed in large white letters brightly juxtaposed against a black background, “Make Your Move!”
The wildcat oil culture that the newly arrived encounter, though, is distinctly different than the risk-averse culture of the state. One “New North Dakotan” noted that although long-time residents of the state are pleasant (we smile a lot), helpful (there’s no better place to have a flat tire), kind (we’ll bring you a hot dish if you are sick), and polite (we almost always hold the door open for the person behind us), we are not quite “friendly.” We are a little guarded with folks we didn’t grow up with. Ethnic to us means Norwegian or German. We’re not used to accents other than our own. (And, no, we don’t talk like the actors in the movie Fargo.) One more thing — and this is important — we talk about the weather a lot.
What should you know before you throw your last $100 in your gas tank and head up to Williston to make cold calls for jobs? Don’t come without a housing plan, or you may find yourself among the hundreds of parking lot denizens, living out of your car.
New North Dakotans need places to live, creating an enormous construction boom. Williston formerly saw about five new homes a year. So far this year, 2,000 new homes have sprouted up. In 2012, the expectation is for 4,000 more along with apartments, hotels and, outside of town, dormitory-style housing facilities known as 'man camps'. According to the Williston Herald, since the boom began, the market price of rental housing in Williston has jumped from $300 to $2,000 per month for a modest apartment. Hotels are full and booked for months, charging $170 to $200 a night.
Service is hard to come by. Waits of 45 minutes or more are not uncommon at fast-food restaurants. The Dairy Queen closes at 5:00 pm because they can’t retain enough staff to stay open any later, and many small businesses have simply closed their doors for lack of employees. The town’s Wal-Mart doesn’t have enough employees to stock the shelves, so boxes are simply laid open in the middle of the aisles for customers to grab what they need. Locals have discovered a “secret route” into the store to avoid the worst of the incoming traffic, and even the local Luddites have managed to learn how to use the self-checkout lanes as a matter of self-preservation. A professor at Williston State College complained recently that she had to text her husband with a request to pick up clothes hangers while he was out of town visiting relatives because local stores were completely sold out. It’s not only hangers; long lines and low inventory have made running everyday errands a vexing challenge. “It sounds crazy,” this same professor says, “but I order laundry detergent online and have it delivered by UPS to my front door.”
At Williston State College, faculty often take out their own garbage to help out the strapped maintenance staff. The school is seeing lower enrollments as students are drawn away from post-secondary education by the lure of instant cash.
The law of supply and demand has kicked in across all sectors of the community. A severe shortage of contractors, plumbers and electricians means that homeowners wait weeks or even months for simple home projects. The local community college is putting out a second bid for a parking lot because, the first time, they didn’t get any bids at all.
Even more disturbing in Williston are rumors of impending electricity shortages. Worried about brownouts and blackouts during the long North Dakota winter, many townspeople have picked up generators in Fargo, where they sell for $700, compared to the “sale” price of $1300 in Williston.
Officials are quick to point out that the state’s larger cities, Bismarck and Fargo, are also thriving. In the Governor’s most recent State of the State address, he posited his explanation of 'The North Dakota Miracle': “It is about an educated workforce, low taxation, a friendly regulatory climate.” And if your state happens to be sitting atop 400 billion barrels of oil … hey, it can’t hurt.
Energy Economics: Boom and Bust
Oilmen have known for fifty years that beneath North Dakota's surface lay billions of barrels of oil, perhaps as much as 4 million barrels per square mile.
In 1952, The Wall Street Journal reported that Williston was receiving a “cornucopia of riches.” Banks were setting new deposit records weekly, and the population had jumped from 7,500 to 10,000. In the early 1980s, oil prices skyrocketed and the region again became an exploration target as its vast deposits became economically feasible to drill. When prices began to slip, hitting a low of $9 a barrel by 1986, the boom faltered and, even more quickly than it began, it was over. The state spent the later part of the 1990s trying to recover from a brutal bust.
Today, a perfect storm of two 21st century technologies, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, along with high prices and unprecedented demand, have come together to make drilling profitable, triggering a new boom that some experts say will be the biggest and longest lasting in the cycle of boom and bust. Conventional wisdom is that this time around the oil boom will be steadier and longer, because oil prices are no longer being defined by the cartels that once controlled the world’s oil prices and, therefore, the economics of energy. In the meantime, the oil pump jacks that dot the skyline are nodding their heads in greeting. Welcome to North Dakota.
Debora Dragseth, Ph.D. is professor of business at Dickinson State University in Dickinson, North Dakota.
Photo of Williston, ND traffic jam courtesy of Williston Department of Economic Development.