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Good jobs, great pay: Jobs boom brings thousands to small North Dakota town


By Catherine Kim
Rock Center

When we set out to tell the story of the jobs boom in Williston, North Dakota, I had no idea that while we were out reporting the story, we’d also feel like we were living part of it.  The first clue should have been when one local said to me, “If you can’t find a place to stay while in town – you are more than welcome to stay with us. We’re living out of our office.” Or when another said, “Drive safely because there are big trucks all over and give yourself extra time because traffic is bad.”  And then there was this: “Don’t go out to eat anytime between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., the lines are insane.  Make sure to plan ahead.”

When we began to firm up our travel plans to Williston, my associate producer, Katie Yu, volunteered to book flights and hotel rooms for our team.  We had been warned that the surge of jobseekers new to town was making available housing, hotels and shelter virtually impossible to find, but still I thought, surely, seven rooms will open up in time. Right? 

Almost immediately, Katie discovered every hotel and motel in Williston – and there are about a dozen – were sold out.  We expanded our search to much of northwest North Dakota. We called about 35 more hotels, motels and B&Bs and even after that, we only had two options:  a Best Western two hours away in Montana or a run-down mobile home rental in an open field an hour away.  Yikes.  I knew we’d be working 12-14 hour days, but two to four hours of commuting on top of that?  No way. I would have rather slept in our rental car.   

We needed some luck. I called the Mayor’s office and a local realtor who seemed like a go-getter to ask for advice.  They said that they would make a few calls on our behalf, but told us to forget about conventional lodging.  The day before we left for Williston, our realtor friend found a new home for us to rent before the new owner moved in. There was no fridge, no TV, no Wi-Fi and no curtains, but we would have clean beds.  Perfect. Our correspondent, Harry Smith, would take the master bed and bath.  My associate producer and I would take the two twin bedrooms upstairs and share a bathroom.  It was ours for $600 a night.  Now we just needed rooms for the crew. A few hours later, the mayor’s office called. They found four rooms with a small catch. It was at a Bible camp. I chuckled and asked how far from town was it located. 20 minutes. We snatched the rooms at $50 a night. 

Everyone had told us about how difficult housing would be to find. We knew we were fortunate. Our early start times meant the crew had to tiptoe out of camp in the wee hours, just as others were assembling for morning prayers.  Back in the house, my associate producer, Katie, and I would unexpectedly end the night yapping about the next day’s schedule while hanging out in our PJs across the hallway from each other.  It’s an amusing business. Being new to NBC, Katie and I had just met and here we were politely asking who was taking the first shower in the morning.  During the day, while we’d interview those new to town and ask how they were making due, we also found ourselves making due. Katie didn’t have any electricity in her room for the first few days, so she’d use her iPhone as a flashlight to move around in the dark.  Navigating to and from our new home also got off to a bumpy start.  We were in a brand new development and our neighborhood wasn’t yet on the GPS.  Still, we were all pretty thrilled. We knew folks were living out of their cars and some even sleeping in tents – so we had no complaints.   

While I had a taste of what it was like to have to secure housing before getting to town, I didn’t find eating out the hassle so many people had warned us about.  Given our long days with infrequent breaks, most of the time when we were grabbing meals – it was either on the fly or during off hours.  I never encountered the famous long lines or packed restaurants.  That is, until my last meal in town.  We finished early and I thought I’d take advantage of the extra time to get some food to go and catch up on other work back home.  I set out toward Applebees for a salad, made the turn into the parking lot only to be stunned that it was closed. How could it be closed at 8 p.m. Isn’t Applebees usually open 24 hours? Or at least until midnight?

I wondered if it was closed because they couldn’t hire enough workers to keep it open at night.  We had heard from locals that this was a problem.  I made a U-turn to find something else. I passed several restaurants and fast food joints, but everything looked busy.  At this point, I’m realizing I didn’t have lunch and I’m kind of starving. I should have anticipated this. I saw Hardee’s ahead and made a bee line there. 

Long lines at the drive-thrus in Williston are a pretty common sight. In fact, there are long lines everywhere during peak hours. I thought I was getting dinner late enough to avoid the crowds, but as I pulled up to Hardee’s, I saw the ‘long lines’ issue from an entirely different perspective now.  I’m hungry, need to eat and there are eight cars in drive-thru.  I couldn’t bear it, but as I tried to back out, I found myself boxed in by the drive-thru lane.  Several pickup trucks were packed in tight just behind me. I thought, “I’m never going to get out of here.  Deep breath.”

I kept hunting with several false starts in and out of restaurant parking lots. I spotted a Taco Johns and turned into the lot only to find more big lines. I got stuck in a mini traffic jam in the lot and escaped onto a side street where I idled for a few minutes. I tried to recall where I had spotted grocery stores. Then I thought, “Why do I think they won’t have lines, too?”

It was now almost 9 p.m. I had spent an hour canvassing Williston for easy food.  I was miserable.   This is when I noticed that the KFC I kept passing, because it had its lights off, was actually open.  There were three cars in the drive-thru lane. I cruised right on over.  I got “Original Recipe” over “Extra Crispy” and had no guilt.  As I pulled up to the drive-thru, I asked the guy at the window if they kept the lights off to keep customers away. He looked at me and said, “What? Oh, the lights are off. Oh, we’re probably just too busy to send someone out there to turn them on. It’s non-stop here. From the moment we open to the moment we close, we’re just slammed and going non-stop. You have a nice night now!”  It was classic.  Despite the lines, the traffic, the daily hassles, everyone we met in Williston coped with the craziness with such good cheer.  Perhaps it’s exactly the right kind of community from which to stage a jobs rush:  nice folks, welcoming to visitors, patient and willing to work hard -- very hard.