North Dakota’s Bakken communities still see options available for workers despite drop in crude oil prices.


Just a bird’s-eye view from Scott Meske’s office in Williston, North Dakota, is the train station. Meske, the president of the Williston Area Chamber of Commerce, has gotten used to seeing unfamiliar faces step on and off the train for the last year and a half.

The Bakken Shale play brought an overabundance of jobs to the once small northwestern North Dakota city. However, things have changed recently with the gas and oil prices in a slump and just 15 active drilling rigs operating in Williams County, where Williston is the county seat.

“When the (Amtrak) Empire Builder stops at 11:30 a.m. every day, I’m not seeing hundreds of people with their backpacks and their hopes and their dreams walking up the street,” Meske says. “We’re not seeing those sort of people that companies needed to fill a position anymore. Companies can now pick and choose.

Related: Blog: New Assessment Shows Greater Potential for Bakken, Three Forks

If you’ve got some experience and are willing to work, there are opportunities here. They’re just not lying on the street anymore. You actually have to have some experience. There’s no doubt there’s a difference in this city than there was Sept. 1 of last year. You can’t deny that.”

Kari Cutter, the vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, noted in testimony in July that 15,000 to 20,000 direct oil and gas jobs have been cut in North Dakota alone. On Aug. 31, 2014, there were 194 drilling rigs active. On Sept. 9, just 73 were still active.

OPPORTUNITIES STILL AVAILABLE

Despite those facts and the slowdown in operations, opportunities are still available in the Bakken. Job needs have shifted as many companies hold off
on drilling.

Related: Bakken Beckons for Housing and Amenities

“A lot of opportunities are out there, perhaps not so much directly in the oil and gas industries, but certainly in those industries that support it,” says Tessa Sandstrom, North Dakota Petroleum Council communications manager. “Whether it’s detail and construction or even outside the state in that supply chain.”

People who aspire to be a mechanic or have experience as a diesel mechanic, and truck drivers and engineers are fields where jobs are plentiful, Meske says. The chamber president heard recently that pipeline companies are starting to hire as they attempt to compete and catch up with rail transportation. Vicky Steiner, executive director for the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties, adds that welders are also valuable at this point.

“There are so many unfilled jobs in other sectors, so we’ve seen some people just switching jobs,” says Steiner, who lives in Dickinson, a major boomtown in the Bakken. “If they know how to do construction work, there are opportunities in the state.”

Related: New Forum Answers Housing Concerns in the Bakken

The Williston Area Chamber of Commerce had 1,500 jobs posted at the end of August in its job service office.

NEED COMING UP

More than 25 percent of the workforce is expected to retire in the next five years, Sandstrom says. So there’s certainly going to be a need for skilled workers in the
near future.

Steve Holen, who serves as the superintendent of the Watford City School District and president of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties, has seen the industry shift on both fronts.

“The jobs are changing slightly based on service vs. drilling, but there are certainly still opportunities,” Holen says. “We still see a large migration of people coming in, but we see people moving out and the reasons are probably for the cost of living still being relatively high and lack of housing, still being in catch-up mode.”

Oilfield veterans and those who are willing to adapt can find jobs easier than newcomers who are traveling to the Bakken to earn a fast buck. “Seasoned veterans can find something,” Steiner says. “If somebody new is trying to get on a rig, it’s definitely going to be harder because they don’t have the experience.”

Transient workers who invaded North Dakota early in the decade have become less desirable.

“The drilling part of the business, extraction, is very labor-intensive and has a lot of transient workers,” Meske says. “So the people that come in for two weeks and work for two weeks and go home for two weeks are fewer since the number of rigs has gone down.”

The North Dakota Petroleum Council conducted an economic impact study for 2013 and found that every drilling rig supports 177 jobs, Sandstrom says. Those tend to be more transient jobs. Also, every well that is complete supports 2 1/2 jobs.

Recently there have been a lot of workers laid off or who have had their hours cut, Sandstrom says. Oilfield workers who were used to putting in 70 to 80 hours per week are now being scaled back to a typical 40-hour week. That has certainly affected incomes and livelihoods. “Some people were only here for the overtime, so when the overtime ended, they went home,” Steiner says. “They had no interest in staying.”

Meske says the workers in the Eagle Ford, Marcellus-Utica and Permian shales are all going through similar situations right now. “When the price goes up and it’s more profitable to have more rigs up, then they’ll put more rigs up,” Meske says. “Right now, it’s steady as she goes.”


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