The news from the oil patch has been doom and gloom in recent months. Oil prices are at a six-year low, and there’s been tens of thousands of layoffs around the country. But a more complex picture emerges at an oilfield job fair in Williston, North Dakota, the heart of the Bakken oil boom.
An hour or so before the job fair began, the Grand Williston Hotel was already crowded with men in work boots and jeans. At 3 p.m., they flooded in and began chatting with recruiters and furiously filling out job applications at the hotel bar. Some stood still amidst the chaos, pecking away on smart phones. That’s what Tyson Kidder was doing when I interrupted him to ask what brought him to the job fair today.
“Unfortunately there was a layoff at the position I held most recently on Friday,” he said, as a technician installing sensors on drilling rigs. It is companies like Kidder’s, on “the exploration side,” in industry speak, that have been hit first in the oilfield slowdown. Companies like Halliburton or Weatherford that assist in the fracking of wells, and the oil companies like Marathon Oil that hire them for their services, have had thousands of layoffs.
But there are still over 12,000 active oil wells in North Dakota alone that need truckers to transport their oil and wastewater and maintenance mechanics to fix them when they break down. That’s why Kidder is leaning towards jobs on the “production side.” Still, he’s a little nervous about, “getting a position that pays enough to cover my bills and the goals I have.” To do that, he says, “you have to hit the upper end of the jobs that are out here.”
And there’s the catch. There are still a lot of upper end oilfield jobs, but they’re harder to get.
“The positions in the oilfield are now more competitive. You have to have a skill,” says Cindy Sanford of Job Service North Dakota, the government agency that put on this job fair.
The recruiting table at Adler Hot Oil is a good place to understand what’s changed. They’re hiring for “hot oil operators,” guys who drive big heater trucks out to wells to heat oil or water as needed for maintenance operations or fracking.
Hot oilers get paid $18-20 an hour, and most take home somewhere between $70,000 to $100,000 dollars a year with the overtime, up to 100 hours a week. At the height of the boom, you could show up in the Bakken with little oilfield experience, without a commercial driver’s license or CDL, and still get hired at places like Adler. Not any more.
“You’ve gotta have your CDL,” I hear recruiter Amy Shelton telling a job seeker at her table. “If you can get your CDL, come back and talk to us.”
That job seeker aside, Shelton says most people do have CDLs these days.
“The last job fair I came to there were a lot less people and a lot less qualified people,” she says.
Now, they’re hiring guys laid of by Halliburton, guys with lots of experience who wouldn’t ordinarily work for places like Adler. Until now, that is.
That makes it harder for less-experienced workers like Rex Williford to compete.
“If I wanted to get a job right now today, could go to a gas station or a grocery store and they’ll hire me,” he says. “But as far as the oilfield job, it might be a little harder to get one cause everybody wants one.”
That’s good news for the one group benefitting from the slowdown: non-oilfield employers like the U.S. Postal Service, Dairy Queen, or construction companies. At the height of the boom, a lot of them had a hard time paying enough to keep low-skilled workers.
Cindy Sanford of Job Service North Dakota says her agency is a perfect example.
“I mean, maybe I’ve had a week where we had a full staff?” she says. “By next week I think we’ll be fully staffed. Hopefully.”
Williston’s sub-two percent unemployment rate is a sign that there’s still a labor shortage here. Still space for newcomers like Leah Ann Kleber to carve out a life for themselves. Kleber recently moved here from Miami, where she found it hard to get started in sales and marketing. She and her husband heard about Williston on television and, in December, decided to come up and see for themselves. In early March, they packed everything into a U-Haul and drove up, making it here just in time for the job fair.
“This town gives you the opportunity to really pursue your dreams,” she says. “It’s new, it’s fresh, and I want to be a part of that.
There’s hope that drilling and fracking in North Dakota might pick up in June, when a massive oil tax break kicks in triggered by five months of sub-$55 oil. In the meantime, officials here are hoping people will keep coming for the twenty thousand open jobs state-wide. There’s even a campaign to recruit them called Find the Good Life in North Dakota.