Josef McConnell, a tennis coach from Southern California, had been unemployed for a year after the government response to the pandemic destroyed his business. Then, in 2021, a friend told him that there were good-paying jobs to be had in North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield.
He knew nothing of oilfields, never heard of the Bakken Basin, nor, for that matter, could he say much about North Dakota other than he believed the state to be a cold, flat flyover tundra with corn and cows somewhere near Canada that had previously been “100 percent not on my mind.”
Nevertheless, Mr. McConnell said, “I picked up everything and left. It was do-or-die.”
He quickly secured a job laboring at SandPro, a sand, wellhead, and automation management start-up in Berthold, west of Minot. As promised, good-paying jobs were available. As promised, they were muscle jobs, dirty jobs, and long-shift jobs.
He was “cleaning iron, tearing things apart,” disassembling and rebuilding “frack trees’ that cap fracked—hydraulically fractured—oil wells. It was hard, gritty work, 12 hours a day, for weeks at a time in an industrial beehive down the road and across the highway from downtown Berthold, a towering grain elevator looming as its landmark above bald grassy ridges and cottonwood-framed creek beds.
But the money was fantastic and, it dawned on him that “this could be a career, not just a job,” Mr. McConnell said.
“I told myself that if I couldn’t make it through the first winter, this is not for me. I survived. It sucked, but I survived,” he said. “From there on, I tried to learn everything I could. I wanted to know how it worked, what it did. I cross-trained into all the aspects of the business.”
As SandPro grew, Mr. McConnell, 33, was appointed night-shift supervisor. Last December, he ascended to shop manager. In August, he became a homeowner. “I’d never be able to do that in California,” he said.
While the 2006–2014 Bakken Play shale boom is over, and the days when oil rigs were anchored on the prairie like ships on seas of waving wheat are long gone, North Dakota’s oil industry has rebounded from its pandemic-induced slump. A sense of steady has settled in.
Right now, an able-bodied unskilled laborer willing to learn and capable of working long and hard can still land a $115,000 entry-level job with room and board and nearly five months off on an oil rig site or with a growing number of independent contractors and start-up oilfield service companies in western North Dakota.
Right now, the Bakken is where stories like Mr. McConnell’s aren’t stories but invitations. It’s where an Arizona cosmetologist can monitor a rig gate while looking to buy her first home, where a New Jersey geologist can build a company that employs 300 to revive a community where she’s hailed as a hometown hero, where a “disgruntled” airman from Cincinnati can carve a niche and expand it into a broadening entrepreneurial enterprise.
“The rush is over, and now we’re seeing a maturing of the play,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.), a 1998 graduate of Dickinson High School who recalls having to—and being able to—stand in the middle of highways to get cellphone reception before the oil boom.
As is typical with a “maturing of the play,” most corporate players have moved on. In their wake, new players have emerged: first-time independent contractors and serial entrepreneurs, many under 40, most building local businesses, buying homes, starting families, and growing communities.
For them, fast money is fine, but sustainable “systemic growth” is preferable, with perfected-in-North-Dakota advances in fracking spurring pioneering innovations in lateral drilling.
“This is a time of great technological advancements,” North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said.
The 31 rigs operating in North Dakota in late December were pumping 1.25 million barrels of shale oil per day to nearly 19,000 wells, a per-rig production that is “a vast improvement” over past proficiency benchmarks, he said.
With lateral drilling in the Bakken expected to extend beyond four miles by early 2024, “the timeline to drill wells has been compressed” and “opened up a whole new area of the Bakken than was formerly known,” a shale play “we are going to take this technology to and earn from.”
Spearheading the Bakken’s post-boom boon are “smaller companies,” Mr. Ness said. “We’ve got so many, typically led by younger people who were working for these larger international service companies, found a niche, and started their own businesses.”
With oil prices expected to hover in the $70-to-$85 per barrel “sweet spot,” demand for North Dakota oil is projected to grow moderately for the foreseeable future.
“It’s better than the boom,” SandPro Vice President Joshua Blackaby said. “You want steady work and that’s where we’re at right now. And one of the distinctive things about what’s going on here now is it’s a lot of small companies, a lot of entrepreneurs.”
According to the North Dakota Job Service, the 31 rigs directly employ 50,000 people with about 35,000 working in field and technical services and about 15,000 toiling directly on sites.
As of mid-December, more than 3,000 oilfield-related jobs were vacant.
For the small farming and ranching prairie towns overwhelmed during the boom, infill ambitions spur new commercial construction, revitalized Main streets, and growing schools, with new homes being purchased by 20- and 30-something-year-olds.
“Building schools, building homes, growing communities rather than tearing them down? I think there’s lots of success stories here,” Mr. Ness said.
“Now, you have an opportunity to grow a life,” Mr. Armstrong said. “That’s a story we are proud to tell.”
For the independent-inclined, there’s ample opportunity for enterprise, Mr. Blackaby said.
“If you have any ambition at all, move to North Dakota,” he said. “There’s so much work to be had here. It’s such a business-friendly state and the opportunities … the sky’s the limit.”
In the Field
Julie Byron, 33, from Tucson, Arizona, is working in a gate shack with two heaters at her feet. Only those on the crew can gain entry to the Hess rig without checking in with her.
A cosmetologist “doing pull-tabs at the Legion,” she’d lived in Williston since 2013 but never considered working in the Bakken until a manager suggested she apply for a job with Neset Consulting Services, a Tioga-based company that provides gate monitors, roustabout crews, field medics, mud-loggers, and geologists for oil rig sites.
Since August, she’s been working seven days on and seven days off in shifts tailored to her needs as a single mother.
It’s fascinating, Ms. Byron said. “This is first time I’m seeing what’s really going on. I said to myself, ‘OK, we’re going to learn this. We’re going to turn this into an opportunity,’” she said. “It’s cool to know the background—the geology, infrastructure, the different jobs—and understand it.”
She is looking to buy a home in 2024. She still works as a cosmetologist and “does pull-tabs at the Legion” during off-weeks.
“It’s just me starting over. I’m still figuring this out at 33 years old,” Ms. Byron said. “Was it worth it? One-hundred percent.”
Ron Budd, 34, delivery services coordinator for Minot-based Creedence Energy Services’ Williston office, moved from Phoenix, Arizona, to North Dakota in 2010 when his stepfather got a job with Haliburton.
“I was pretty young and didn’t really have it figured out. I was just kind of day-by-day, dead-end jobs,” he recalled. “The job I was working before I came up here was at McDonald’s. I thought of it as hard work. Now, not so much.”
Mr. Budd said “financial opportunity” became his “driving force to fully commit” to the oilfield. He no longer works directly in the field, but the commitment has panned out, said the father of two.
“Knowing I could do better for my kids than what I had, knowing that I can have things that no one else in my family has, I buckled down and committed,” Mr. Budd said, noting he has purchased his own home. “Out of my immediate family, I’m the only one that owns a home.”
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