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Oil Jobs Plentiful, But Do Your Research First

April 30, 2012

Becky Kramer


After four layoffs in three years, Dan Serna was looking for steady work. His wife encouraged him to become a truck driver and put that skill to use in North Dakota's oil patch.

Serna is enrolled in Sage Truck Driving Schools in Coeur d'Alene. He'll graduate with a commercial driver's license and hopes to land a job soon afterward. But Serna plans to get employment and housing lined up before he heads to North Dakota.

"I'm not going to go until I have a job, because I'm not going to be the guy living in a van with no income," said the 37-year-old Spokane resident.

North Dakota's oil fields have become a magnet for Inland Northwest residents looking for work.

Spokane County lost about 5,000 construction jobs during the economic downturn. Labor economists don't track how many local residents are working in North Dakota, but they said the migration appears strongest among construction laborers, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators and people in building trades.

Even with the glut of jobs there, advance research can make it easier to get hired and find a place to stay.

Prerequisites: A clean driving record and ability to pass a drug test are prerequisites for most oil field jobs. Many positions have minimum age requirements of 18 or 21. For some jobs, applicants must be able to show that any felony convictions are at least five years in the past.

Local workforce training: Short-term training can pay off. Local community colleges and private schools offer four- to six-week courses for a commercial driver's license.

Sage Truck Driving Schools began offering an expedited, two- to three-week course based on demand. "I've had guys come running through the door, saying, 'I need my CDL now. I've got a job lined up in North Dakota,'" said Tina Sykes, director of the Coeur d'Alene school.

At North Idaho College, some students enrolled in the electrical and plumbing programs plan to work in the oil fields, said Marie Price, director of workforce and community education. She's had students start the coursework here and do their apprenticeships in North Dakota.

Check out job opportunities before you go: North Dakota's Job Service website -- jobsnd.com -- has the most comprehensive list of job openings.

Many employers accept online applications. Some will do interviews by phone or Skype.

Resources for veterans: North Dakota Job Service has a veterans employment team that works exclusively with veterans and their spouses. For more information, click the "veterans" tab at jobsnd.com.

Due diligence on prospective employers: At Sage Truck Driving Schools, instructors encourage their students to go to North Dakota and meet the prospective employer before accepting a job.

"You don't want to end up working for a mom-and-pop operation where your paychecks bounce," Sykes said.

She tells students to ask their own questions during interviews. If the answers are vague or raise red flags, she encourages them to keep looking.

Sage also keeps a list of oil patch companies that past students have worked for and endorse as reliable employers.

Have a cash reserve: Some people prefer to go to North Dakota and start their job search there. In that case, it's important to have enough money to live on until a job materializes. At some of the larger companies, the hiring processes can take a couple of weeks.

"We've had both types of people -- those who jumped in the car and left and others who did prior research on companies," Sykes said. "We've never had anyone who didn't get employment."

Housing: "Do you have a place to live?" is a commonly asked question on job applications.

Rapid job growth has created an acute housing shortage. Hotels and motels are booked -- sometimes for months in advance. Rental homes are advertising for $3,000 per month. RV parks have waiting lists.

Some companies provide housing for their employees, or offer resources to help people find places to live. MBI Energy, which employs about 1,900 truck drivers in North Dakota's oil patch, has four employees working full time on housing leads.

Job seekers should do their research "so they know up front what the situation is," said Chuck Steffan, MBI Energy's president of administration.

The Salvation Army in Williston, N.D., wants to open a temporary homeless shelter. However, competition for real estate is so keen that the organization hasn't been able to secure a building.

Be willing to work your way up: "A lot of people come over here and think they'll get this big job in the oil fields tomorrow," said Glenn Welstad, owner of Command Services, a Post Falls employment staffing company with North Dakota offices.

He advises people to take lower-paying jobs while looking for opportunities to advance. "You're not making the $30 to $35 per hour you think you should be making today, but you're putting things in place for tomorrow," Welstad said.

Many positions are advertised through word-of-mouth, so people who already are working there are better placed to hear about such opportunities. Demand for reliable workers is intense. Welstad knows of employers who've had construction crews recruited away by competitors who drove to the work site and offered the men higher wages.

"Some of these executives are just dying for people," he said. "If they find someone who's doing a good job, they grab them."

Opportunities outside the oil fields: Many of North Dakota's job openings are in the service industry. Restaurants, hotels and retail outlets are advertising for workers.

Scott Gail, 41, of Spokane, is selling guns at a sporting goods store in Williston. He headed there knowing that he didn't want to work in the oil industry.

"I realize that I'm leaving money lying on the table," said Gail, who grew up in Minnesota. "But I'm intimately familiar with 30 below zero and I don't want to be standing on an oil rig when the wind starts to blow."

Waitressing can be a lucrative job for women because of the tips. However, one woman said she gave up restaurant work because male customers constantly hit on her. She felt unsafe after several clients mistook her efforts to be friendly and waited for her in the parking lot until her shift ended.

Set financial goals: Getting a paycheck for several thousand dollars can be a heady experience, especially for someone who's been out of work. One young man, who preferred not to be named, spent last summer working in the oil fields. After regularly running up $200 bar tabs, he had little to show for his work.

Setting financial goals can help workers make the most of their money -- whether it's getting out of debt, saving for college or retirement, or setting aside money for a major purchase, such as a house or vehicle.


Source: (c)2012 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

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