June 13, 2014

Inside The Boom: Finding The Good Life In North Dakota

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I moved to North Dakota for the same reason as everyone else: a job related to the energy industry. Instead of hauling water or laying pipelines, I’ll be reporting on the oil boom and how it’s radically changing this formerly quiet prairie state.

I got here about a week ago, after a long drive up through the grasslands of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota. At the border with North Dakota, I stopped to snap a selfie. Two pumpjacks bobbed just out of sight behind a hill. Fitting, I thought.

Signs of oil are everywhere here, even in Bismarck, the state capitol located two and a half hours from the heart of the Bakken oil region. At the first apartment I visited, the guy living upstairs was a petroleum geologist. One of my co-workers is a former “landman,” the guys who are part of the first wave of job creation in an oil boom as they try to decipher who owns the mineral rights beneath the ground. But the most visible indicator is signs like these:

Emily Guerin

A hiring sign in Bismarck, North Dakota. This one is just around the corner from the Inside Energy studio.

These signs are on the corner of nearly every major intersection in Bismarck. From serving super burritos at Taco John’s to tucking in sheets at the Ramada Inn, jobs in food service and hospitality are plentiful here while the people willing to work those jobs are scarce.

I pulled some numbers on job openings:  as of May 2014, there were over two jobs open for every applicant, according to the North Dakota Job Service. That’s a big change from four years ago, when there were over twice as many job seekers as available jobs. The gap is even bigger in the western part of the state — the heart of the Bakken oil boom — where all companies are scrambling to hire and retain employees.

Job openings rate ND

This chart shows the ratio of local job applicants to job openings. A higher ratio means there are more applicants than jobs. A lower ratio means there are more open jobs than people applying. Credit: Job Service North Dakota

Part of the gap between jobs and workers, I think, is there simply aren’t enough native North Dakotans to fill those jobs. For over half a century, the state had one of the slowest population growth rates in the country. Now it’s the fastest, but immigration still hasn’t caught up to job creation. That’s why the North Dakota Economic Development Foundation has started a new campaign to recruit workers, called “Find the Good Life in North Dakota.” I like that slogan — that’s what I’m here for, too.

Inside Energy reporter Emily Guerin just moved to North Dakota to cover the energy industry and its impacts on that state. Her “Inside The Boom” blog will be an occasional web feature at insideenergy.org.