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by Larry

October, 2011

Need a Job? Two Words: North Dakota!

This is not a simple here's the problem, and so here's the solution story, but it is an interesting one about options, some that can have a big impact, positive and negative. Somewhere in there one might actually find a real resolution of a current difficulty, if one is out of work at present and willing to relocate.

It turns out that, while most all the rest of our country is struggling along with high unemployment (quite high if one factors in all the folks who have given up on getting hired or who are working part-time because they cannot find full-time jobs), North Dakota actually has a large deficit of workers and is hiring right and left. Folks who have been out of work for years are now earning nice paychecks in ND.

During the Great Depression, if there was work to be had, many people pulled up stakes and went where the work was. In some ways that is less the case today, but still the ND scarcity of employees situation is encouraging a number to head off there who might in happier times never have considered the advantages of "The Peace Garden State."

As of about a week ago, at least, North Dakota had a need for 15,000 new workers at all levels: experienced, inexperienced, old, young, skilled, unskilled, or in between these categories. Waitpersons are making $25 an hour. Counter help receives $15. Truck drivers can start at around $80,000. Relatively inexperienced oilfield workers can demand $70,000 or more, $100,000 with overtime pay. Human resource professionals are in great demand and have had boosted salaries too.

Nor are oil and gas industry folks, their headhunters, and those serving them most directly the only beneficiaries. The needs are diverse, such as construction, food service, most all the jobs associated with boom towns, including a smattering of job titles one might not imagine: nannies; grocery clerks; bank tellers; farmers; gasoline station attendants; environmental professionals; RV rental business managers; etc. Everyone is getting top dollar for a full work-week, usually with plenty of extra hours thrown in as well.

However, there are a couple significant drawbacks: 1. There is not enough housing for the influx of new hires and their families, so people are sleeping in their cars a lot or paying $1500-$3000 a month for not very adequate apartments, RVs, or other residences; 2. Staying clean is a problem, since public or other fairly communal restrooms, even restaurant facilities, often have long lines.

A vanity plate showing the revised (expletive) spelling of fracking (Wikipedia image)
In addition, there are the wider environmental issues. North Dakota's boom is mostly due to advances in oil industry technology, primarily in horizontal drilling and in fracking. The combination has allowed oil companies to access a huge reservoir of oil previously unavailable for drilling and deep below the ND surface.

Horizontal drilling is a technique of drilling at an angle instead of straight down and can now involve reaching deposits at relatively great distance from the surface drilling site.

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking and refers to a successful process of pumping large amounts of water and specialized chemicals, all under great pressure and often at substantial depth, in order to fracture the rock that is holding deposits of oil or natural gas and so release it to be forced to the surface. Older fracking technologies have actually been employed since 1903 but really came of age in the period from the late1940s through the late 1980s.

When combined, the current technologies permit a mushrooming of oil production in areas once thought played out or that had seemed lacking in usable oil reserves.

Besides in ND, modern horizontal drilling and fracking, in combination, are becoming common in TX, PA, AR, and elsewhere. They are about to begin in earnest in NY too.

Although good for local economies and for increased energy independence in the U.S., so that it is popular in some circles, fracking has allegedly been linked to the contamination of drinking water with the hazardous chemicals injected into rock formations during the fracking process. There is much controversy over this, even though both sides admit that in certain areas contamination has occurred.

The oil and gas industry interests and their allies contend that, where previously potable water was harmed by hazardous chemicals, this was really due to other causes, such as inadequate drinking water well casings, or that, in any case, there was no proof it was due to fracking.

This is an area that has little regulation or accountability. The large sums involved encourage strong positions in favor of continued fracking, while there is little clout or funding among the proponents of opposing views.

While I do not know that fracking is dangerous, it seems unwise to merely assume it is not and proceed, business as usual, with few safeguards until the negative effects of a process are glaringly obvious. Too frequently in the past those questioning an industry's claims, for instance doubts about tobacco companies' assertions of their products having merely benign effects, were ignored until evidence of harm was overwhelming.

As that sort of debate rages on, however, for now North Dakota offers thousands of jobs to those eager to get work, get on with their lives, and get out of debt. Yet they will need to put up with certain inconveniences, perhaps also with a level of moral dilemma, to make all that happen.

Primary Sources:

Double Your Salary in the Middle of Nowhere, North Dakota. Blake Ellis in CNN Money; 9/28/2011.

Fracking: The not-so-secret to success to drilling in the Williston Basin. Nick Smith in Williston Herald; 8/5/11.

Hydrofracturing and the Impact on Your Clean Water. American Rivers - Rivers Connect Us; last updated 9/13/11.

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