Desperate for Work? 10 Things to Know If You’re Thinking of Moving to the Jobs Capital of the U.S.

North Dakota boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the country, but living in Boomlandia is not for the faint of heart.

View of former wheat field outside Williston, N.D.
Photo Credit: Evelyn Nieves

Lost in the government shutdown drama over the last few weeks is the dismal U.S. jobs report. The percentage of working-age Americans either holding jobs or looking for work has dropped to 63.2 percent, the lowest rate in 35 years.

The big, bright exception is the oil boom land of North Dakota, which boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the country (3 percent). You’ve heard the stories: it’s raining jobs in them hills. Big, fat-wallet oil jobs.

So maybe after years of looking for work, any work, in your recession-wracked hometown, you’re thinking of joining the black gold rush of western North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, where corporations like Halliburton and BP, not to mention every Tom, Dick and Harry contractor, construction company and commercial driving school, are cashing in on the frenetic fracking transforming the northern plains.

Join the club. Five years into the boom, this land is teeming with recession refugees from New York to California. For the desperate, it’s the answer to utility cut-offs, the repo man and looming foreclosure. The population in the Bakken oil patch has tripled, with newcomers pouring in so fast officials can’t count them fast enough.

But before you leave hearth and home for the ravaged pastures of the North Dakota prairie, be forewarned: Living in Boomlandia is not for the faint of heart. Keep these facts in mind before you make a life-changing trek to almost-Canada.

10. There will be traffic. Not rush-hour traffic of the here now, gone later, variety. You have never seen traffic like this, even if you’re from D.C, Los Angeles or an exit off the Jersey Turnpike. In and around the heart of the Bakken oil patch—once a site of sleepy farm towns like Williston, New Town and Watford City—semis, cement mixers, oil tankers, wide-load trailers, five wheels, F150s and SUVs will come at you from all sides, swarm you, back to back for miles and miles, day and night.

9. There will be lines. At the supermarket, the Williston Walmart, the Subway inside the Williston Walmart, the drive-thru window at McDonalds, you name it. With unemployment in the oil patch at an estimated one percent, retail jobs, even with starting salaries at $17 an hour, are going begging. Stores close early for lack of help. The downtown Williston shops have even cut whole days for lack of help. So, factor in lines everywhere when you make your rounds. That goes double for essential services. If your truck breaks down, better know how to fix it. Auto repair shops are stretched so thin some have closed their weeks-long waiting lists.

8. Women, prepare for stares. Officially, the ratio of males to females in the oil patch is six to one. Unofficially, to the naked eye? More like 10 to one. So this is what awaits you: Men craning their necks at stoplights to get a look at you, men making thin excuses on line (see above) to talk to you, men following you around store aisles, greeting you with “Hi, do you have a boyfriend?” and generally making you dread stepping outside without a burka.

7. Men, see above. If you’re thinking you’ll meet women in the oil patch, think again. If you’ve grand ideas about having any fun, ditto. Moving to the oil patch is like enlisting in the Army. It’s all about long hours, hard labor and dodging dangers to life and limb. Options to blow off steam remain few. Older workers tend to have families; they work their long shifts—two weeks on, one week off, or some variation—and then hightail it back to where they come from to recharge and reconnect. Many younger men are single and not eager to spend part of their paycheck on airfare or gas, so they stay put, but not happily. Step into any bar in the patch (there are only a few, so it’s easy to hit them all) and you’ll hear more whining than a Hank Williams tribute concert. Men from all over, so lonesome they could cry.

6. Accidents will happen. Locals will tell you that back before the oil boom, when North Dakota was the least-visited state in the country, they’d hear of one, maybe two, fatal road accidents a year. This even though western North Dakota is under snow and ice for six or seven months at a time. Now, accidents happen every day. Bad ones, involving bodily injury or worse, happen every week. Not just vehicular mishaps, but on-the-oil-job catastrophes.

5. The locals will hate you. The hardy ranchers and farmers who’ve populated the prairie lands for generations loved their peace and quiet. That was the payoff for enduring subzero winters and complete indifference from the rest of the world. But that’s over. The amber waves of grain and deep blue skies of summer are history. Smog, diesel fumes, dust and open pits of natural gas have turned the sky dusky. Land not being ravaged by oil drilling is being torn up to build, baby, build. Hastily erected hotels, corrugated steel worker housing (man camps) and new rental buildings and roads have sullied the pristine landscape. Not to mention everything else on this list that is no fun at all. The locals gotta blame somebody. Might as well be you.

4. A lack of housing. A zillion new hotels, motels, trailer parks and man camps and still housing in the oil patch remains in short, expensive supply. If you haven’t secured a place to sleep before you arrive, oopsie. Going rate for a second-rate hotel is upward of $250 a night. The Williston Walmart parking lot, which became famous in the beginning of the boom for letting oil workers stay in their cars and campers until they could find their footing, is strictly enforcing a 24-hour limit for all campers. It cracked down amid an avalanche of complaints that the growing encampment in the lot had become dirty and dangerous, complete with drunken brawls and assaults. Still, hidden illegal camps have sprouted in parking lots all over Williston. Bring a pillow and blankets.

3. Lots of crime. Crime is a big, big problem in the Bakken. Crime was once unheard of in these parts. But now, shootings, rapes (of men and women), drug trafficking, and organized prostitution have overwhelmed police departments. A new study by the North Dakota State University finds alcohol-related violence is forcing police departments to sacrifice proactive community policing as they scurry from one emergency to the next. Meanwhile, people are arming themselves. In 2012, the state issued more than twice the number of concealed weapons licenses than in 2011 and is on pace to break last year’s record. As if we didn’t have enough reasons to call the oil patch the Wild, Wild West again and again.

2. You might not get that dream six-figure job after all. The coveted jobs in the oil patch require expertise and experience. Oil shale drilling—fracking—is complicated and fraught with pitfalls and perils. Companies want workers who know what they’re doing. The second most sought-after jobs—commercial vehicle driving and construction jobs, which are back-breaking and involve rotating, 12-hour shifts—still require background checks and proof of ability (a license for the former and references for the latter). Many a woeful story heard in the local watering holes revolves around a newcomer waiting weeks and weeks for word that he has passed muster. So bring a pillow and blankets…and a good book.

1. You could be endangering your life and health in the oil patch. Setting aside the many environmental concerns about fracking, there are also known carcinogens in fracking materials. Only a study done well after the fact will be able to tell us how many workers and oil patch residents will be severely affected by daily exposure. But a study done by the University of South Dakota has found that just grappling with the effects of a boom—the stresses and changes—could quite literally make a person sick to death. Oil patch workers will tell you: “Nobody knows for sure if this stuff will kill us,” which may or may not be reassuring.

Evelyn Nieves is a senior contributing writer and editor at AlterNet, living in San Francisco. She has been a reporter for both the New York Times and the Washington Post.