Finding a Job in North Dakota: The Bakken Oil Drilling Boom

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Oil Field Trash

When Sarah Palin chants, “Drill, baby, drill!”, she’s thinking about energy independence…and jobs. Jobs, jobs, and more jobs. Everything but Steve Jobs. Although if you’re a guy named Steve who needs a job, an oil drilling boom area is a mighty fine place to start.

Here and now, in November of 2010, that means North Dakota. There’s black gold in the Bakken formation, folks, and no reason you shouldn’t get yourself a piece of that pie.

However, if you’re saddling up your mule to head on out thataway, don’t be putting blinders on until after you’ve found the employment you’re needing. Because it’s not just the drilling rigs that are hiring. In fact, unless you at least know somebody who knows somebody or you have a bit of past experience on the rigs, you’re unlikely to crack that particular walnut without help. Even the lowest worm, as a rookie roughneck is called, generally needs a reference to be accepted for one of the roughest, toughest, dirtiest, hardcore, best paying jobs on the planet.

So? Not to worry! There are dozens of other employment opportunities generated by an oil boom, and most of them pay pretty well, too. I should know. Of my three oilpatch related career stints, not one involved working for the drilling companies–yet that didn’t mean I wasn’t on and around the rigs.

Halliburton trucks.

Halliburton trucks.

Update: If you find your self wondering where all the comments went, I had to leave 1,247 of them behind when this page was moved over from a site I did not own to one I did. Feel free to ask any questions or post any related information you like in the comments.

Service Contractors

Drilling rigs generate a lot of economic activity, no small part of which involves the contractors who don’t actually do the drilling but do provide crucial ancillary services. In June of 1981, I found that out.

At the time, desperate for work and facing absolute financial disaster, I decided to drive to the town of Glendive, Montana…on a hunch. At the time, I hadn’t a clue about oil booms–yet, based on a tiny classified ad in the Billings Gazette for a virtually worthless, out-of-my-interest-zone Glendive job, I’d become certain the town had a job waiting for me.

I pulled into Glendive late in the day, cruising around, finding nothing…until, beside the road that runs north to Sidney, something significant caught my eye. My first thoughts were,

“…Ungh! Many big red trucks! Maybe they need somebody to drive one of ’em!”

Turned out they did. The following morning, after a rough night sleeping camped out in the shotgun seat of our tiny Honda Civic, I walked into the manager’s office and was hired on the spot as a bulk hand, hauling tanker loads of dry cement to drilling rigs in Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and–once–to South Dakota.

A workover rig.

A workover rig.

The Workover Rigs

The Halliburton job ended in October of 1982. America had been going through a monstrous oil industry slump like you wouldn’t believe if you hadn’t lived it, and I got laid off. It was a spooky thing, because a Montana winter was on the way and our little family of four had exactly $600 in savings–which, of course, soon became $0. Having been around the drilling rigs for the past 15 months and change, I had some street cred with the drillers…but they were out of work, too.

Fortunately, two weeks and a whole lot of shoe leather later, Western Oil Well Services took me on as a worm. Western specialized in workover rigs. Those aren’t drilling units; they run stuff up and down the well holes after said holes have been drilled: Tubing, rods, pumps, fishing tools, whatever’s needed.

Before long, I’d graduated from worm to derrick hand, working mostly on a “flying deck” some 50 feet in the air.

It was a good job. We made it through the winter, our eldest son graduated from high school, and all it cost me was the loss of one fingernail after I dropped one end of a 200 pound chunk of steel on my left index finger one pitch-dark, predawn, subzero morning.

Well worth the price.

A P.T. (Production Transport) water hauling rig.

A P.T. (Production Transport) water hauling rig.

Production Transport

The oilpatch slump continued to worsen. With prospects in Glendive looking less than cheery by spring, I began to look around for some other way to make a living…and eventually left both Glendive, Montana, and the energy industry behind for a time.

Twenty-three years of time, as it turned out.

But I went back to the patch in December of 2006, coming out of retirement due to having entirely spent the inheritance my Mom left me when she left planet Earth. Since leaving Western Oil Well Services, I’d had a number of white collar jobs, been an OTR (over the road) truck driver, and even built a business that grossed something like two million dollars in its day. Yep, lots of cash had come along over the years, all right.

Not one dime of which stayed around long enough to say howdy.

Update Jan. 16, 2012: CRIME WARNING

Each and every job seeker heading to North Dakota should be keenly aware that where you have an oil boom–just as with gold in the gold rush days–you have both increased opportunity and increased crime. The recent murder of teacher Sherry Arnold, kidnapped from her hometown of Sidney, Montana, underscores the point:

BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!

Sherry was taken while out jogging. Police eventually got a break in the case, and two men are currently being held in jail in Williston in connection with her disappearance. The FBI is asking land owners to search their properties in both states (Montana and North Dakota). So far, all they’ve found of Sherry herself is…a single running shoe left behind when she was nabbed.

Personal shock: I was watching a news video about this crime…and suddenly heard the speaker say that these two suspects, Lester Vann Waters, Jr., 47, and Michael Keith Spell, 22…are from our previous home town of Parachute, Colorado.

“Parachute!” I yelled across the house to Pam. She got it. We lived in Parachute from March of 2007 through March of 2009 when I was driving water trucks for Production Transport. These guys moving from one boomtown (Parachute) to another (Williston) is an indicator they’re most likely oilpatch workers or one sort or another.

While the names aren’t familiar, it’s entirely possible I’d know them to see them. We could have worked together on one job or another, and we no doubt shopped at the same grocery store–there’s only one in town. Pam could have brushed elbows with them at the local Family Dollar store.

Dang.

BE CAREFUL OUT THERE!

Production Transport (P.T.) hired me that time. Servicing the gas field drilling boom in western Colorado, P.T. is a local outfit running fresh water to drilling rigs and frac jobs plus hauling tainted “production water” to authorized disposal sites. My job was to pull tanker trailers like the one in the photo or, sometimes, jockey the shorter but no less necessary “bobtail” trucks that could get into places the longer tractor-trailer combos could not. It was grueling work, all-weather, nasty steep twisty winter-cold, tricky conditions… even more so after I volunteered to become a charter member of the company’s first-ever full time night shift crew. Even some of the day shift drivers shook their heads about that, unable to comprehend why anyone would want those hours, but me? I loved it and stayed with it until it was once again time to retire.

Best job I ever had.

Okay, back to the point: There are more jobs available servicing the rigs–whether the drilling boom is located in North Dakota or Colorado–than are available on the rigs.

Oh, one more thing. If the job you get turns out to be with Production Transport, feel free to tell ’em Ghost sent you.

Closing note: View counts have continued to roll in, but few readers had commented recently. It helps if those of you who are working in the oil patch (or looking for work there) post a bit of updated information every now and then–so please do, if you have the time. The patch is as cyclical as it comes, up one year (or even month, sometimes) and down the next–and your information may help the next reader a lot.

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