Where the Jobs Are
Right now you are probably asking yourself: “What would it be like to live in a place with an unemployment rate of 1 percent?”
Me, too! So I went to Williston, N.D., to find out. There are certain things that journalists do as a public service because you, the noble reader, are probably not going to do them for yourself — like attending charter revision meetings or reading the autobiography of Tim Pawlenty. Going to Williston is sort of in this category. The people are lovely, but you’re talking about a two-hour drive from Minot.
If you did come, however, you would feel really, really wanted. Radio ads urged me to embark on a new career as a bank teller, laborer, railroad conductor or cake decorator. The local Walmart has a big sign up, begging passers-by to consider starting their lives anew in retail sales. The Bakken Region Recruiter lists openings in truck driving, winch operating and canal maintenance work, along with ads for a floral designer, bartender, public defender, loan officer, addiction counselor and sports reporter. All in an area where the big city has a population of around 16,000.
There’s an oil boom. The Bakken formation, which runs under the western part of North Dakota and into Montana, contains a huge amount of oil, which the industry figured out how to extract about five years ago. Williston’s median income, which was under $30,000 when the serious drilling started, has jumped to well over $50,000 a year. Job-seekers flooded in. The schools are now so crowded that teachers are holding classes in modular units, some dating back to the ’80s, and one that was constructed by a high school shop class.
“It’s a place of opportunity,” says E. Ward Koeser, the genial head of a local communications company who has also been Williston’s part-time mayor for the last 18 years. A waitress at a restaurant that Koeser patronizes recently told him that she made $400 in tips on a single night. “Although I’m sure that’s not the norm,” he added hastily.