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Now hiring: North Dakota oil boom creates thousands of jobs

By Catherine Kim
and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Those hurt hard by the ailing economy are flocking to Williston, N.D., where an oil boom has turned a sleepy prairie town into a place producing thousands of jobs.

"There's opportunity here and that's what we all need is opportunity," said Williston Mayor Ward Koeser. "It's kind of been an oasis for the country.  You know, there's a lot of jobs here, good paying jobs in the oil industry."

Williston is situated on the Bakken formation, an oil field that some say will produce the biggest boom in North America since the 1960s. Koeser said that his town currently has 2,000 to 3000 jobs and they haven't been able to fill the openings fast enough.

"A lot of jobs get filled every day, but it's like for every job you fill, another job and a half opens up," Koeser said.

A job on an oil rig can pay as much as six figures.  The starting salary for truck drivers is around $80,000. While the nation's unemployment rate is 9.1 percent, Williston's unemployment rate is less than 1 percent. 

Locals say job seekers from all 50 states are heading to the North Dakota town, becoming modern-day pioneers. The town's population has nearly doubled from 12,600 people to 23,000 people.

Patrick Parker hitchhiked from Yuba City, Calif., to Williston. When NBC News spoke to him, he had just $12 in his pocket. Parker, a paving stone layer by trade, has been out of work for two years. 


"One of my goals is to make my daughters proud of me," said an emotional Parker.  "I want to make them proud because I worked a good job for 10 years and then for it to go away it's just, it just gets to me a little bit."

Parker is one of a dozen people NBC News saw setting up camp or living in their cars in the parking lot of the local Wal-Mart.  Williston's housing construction hasn't caught up with its rapid growth.

Parker said the town feels "like the old gold rush town."

Oil was discovered in the this part of North Dakota 60 years ago, but it was only recently that oil producers have found a way to get at it more effectively.  After drilling about two miles down, they drill horizontally for another two miles through the bed of rock where the oil is trapped.  Using a technique called fracking - water, sand and chemicals are shot into the rock formation from that horizontal pipe to create cracks and fractures. From those openings, comes the oil.  Those in the oil industry say the tight rock that traps the oil, also prevents it from escaping into the water table during the fracking process.

North Dakota is currently the fourth largest producer of oil in the United States, but that is projected to change soon.  A spokesperson for North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Department said that oil production in the state is expected to surpass Alaska and California by 2015 which means North Dakota will be the second largest oil producer in the country soon.

Along with the bounty from the oil boom, come some stresses and strains. A sewage system that's running at full tilt, truck traffic congestion, an influx in 911 calls-those are just a few of the headaches that keep Mayor Koeser up at night.

There is such a large influx of people that thousands are staying in 'man camps'- shipping containers converted into housing units for the workers new to town.  When more teachers were hired to deal with the rising number of students, an apartment building had to be built to house the new teachers, Koeser said.

"When we have as many people come here everyday looking for work, where are they going to live," Koeser asked.  "How are we going to get water to them and sewer to them and a road to them and power to them and all those sorts of issues.   Yeah, it's putting a tremendous amount of pressure on the infrastructure."

Of all the stresses, the biggest strain on the community is truck traffic, the mayor said.

"That's really stressing us, the traffic, a lot of accidents," said Koeser.  "In a small community, you're used to getting from one side of town to the other in just a few minutes, that's no longer the case."

The number of accidents in September were double the amount the same time a year ago, the Williston Herald reported.

The surplus of people living in the town coupled with the traffic accidents has led to a drastic rise in calls to 911. Koeser said that the police receive at least 10,000 more calls a year than in pre oil boom times.

"Now keep in mind, you've got, you know, probably 9,000 men living in man camps around the city, not in the city limits, but living around the city and what do they do at night when they're done with work?  They come to town and find a bar and want to have a good time, and sometimes get in trouble," Koeser said.

But that means more jobs: the town is adding six new policeman and three dispatchers this year, the mayor said.

Even with the headaches, Koeser said he and Williston's other residents are lucky that the town has become an oasis for job seekers.

"I've lived here most all of my life and I love it. And although we're really being challenged right now, with those challenges come some great opportunities," he said.