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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.
 
 
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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.

 
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