WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - The boom hasn’t gone bust … yet.
Many in the area are convinced it won’t, that the current slowdown in the oil patch is a lull in an otherwise strong and sustainable industry.
But despite the optimism that local business and economic leaders project about the outlook for local oil field-related jobs, there are a number of people in the region who are facing a decision - stick it out and hope for the best, or leave an area known for years as a land of opportunity and start over somewhere else.
With the price of oil hovering under $50 a barrel, and the number of working rigs down by half from last year, the numbers can be discouraging. And with companies like Halliburton and Schlumberger tightening their ranks with rounds of layoffs, the job climate can appear unstable.
David Burgess discovered first-hand how the bottom can drop out of a seemingly secure situation during a slowdown.
“I had so much time invested in the oil field - it’s what I do, it’s the best money,” the South Dakota native told the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1KoNZYq ). “You build your life around what you do.”
He moved to Williston in 2010 and found work as a mechanic, bouncing around from one better-paying job to another, until being hired as a caser - someone who lays the final pipe after a hole is drilled for a rig.
For several years, work was steady, and money worries disappeared. He saved by living in a camper for several years, and was eventually earning enough to rent a townhouse for $3,000 a month and move his pregnant wife and three children here.
But at the beginning of this year, as the rig count started a free-fall from nearly 200 to the 68 in operation now, rumors started to swirl in the oil patch.
“We all saw it, every single one of us saw it,” Burgess said of the downturn, “it” being layoffs at major companies such as Halliburton, Baker Hughes, Schlumberger and Sanjel.
“We didn’t realize it would fall as far and as fast as it did,” he said. “We knew that there was going to be trouble, but with them telling us it was going to be fine, we just got invested in it.”
Then, in late May, Burgess, 34, walked in to get his paycheck and was handed a pink slip along with it.
The family suddenly found themselves in over their heads, and Burgess, who could no longer afford the rent, was forced to break his lease. He took his wife and kids back to South Dakota, but decided to give Williston another shot.
At first, the job search proved fruitless. The oil industry, where most of Burgess’s training is, wasn’t hiring, and even job fairs seemed to be dead ends.
“A lot of (oil companies) are there (at the fair) just for looks,” Burgess said. “They would tell me, when the oil field picks back up give us a call,”
By the middle of last month, he was staying with a friend in a studio apartment, and was down to just a few dollars. Discouraged and broke, he headed back home a week ago to his family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and its sky-high unemployment rate. He wasn’t there long before a few welcome job offers came in.
He’ll soon be working full-time again in Watford City, operating heavy equipment at construction sites, a career switch that he hopes will pay close to what he was making in the oil field.
“With the rigs laying down, I haven’t been able to get back into casing anywhere in the country,” Burgess said. “It’s not just the Bakken - it’s everywhere. It’s killing tons of jobs, for every rig that folds, there’s 200 jobs that go with it. If I were to advise anybody whether to stay or go, don’t come up here without a good job, and don’t make any permanent decisions for the next few years, because we don’t really know where it’s going.”
This time around, he said, saving money will be a top priority, a lesson he’s learned not only through personal experience, but by watching those around him.
“Especially in the Bakken, people live around what they’re being paid, and a lot of people aren’t putting their money in the bank,” Burgess said. “These downturns … have sent a lot of people packing, and a lot of people went home with nothing because they spent all their money. One day the money’s there, the next day it’s not.”
Robert Gregory, who’s spent five years here living in a camper attached to his pickup truck, is ready to leave the oil field, and North Dakota’s bone-chilling cold, behind.
“I feel like I’ve done my time after five winters,” he said. “I think it’s just time to move on. You have to be really tough to live here. It’s a rough place, especially in the wintertime, and I miss home.”
Gregory came here explicitly for work in 2010 when he got an offer to drive a crude oil truck. The 48-year-old’s wife and home are back in Oklahoma.
“I always looked at it like I knew it would at some point come to an end probably sooner that what they said,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s at the end now, it’s just a slowdown.”
He is planning on heading south, after working a series of commercial driving jobs in the Bakken, where he found weathering the industry’s unpredictability just as important as surviving the winters in his small camper.
His first layoff came just four months after starting work moving rigs and delivering parts. A second job driving a water tanker lasted a year and eight months before he was let go, and another stint transporting crude oil ended about two months ago.
After that, he was hired by a Williston company to haul dirt and gravel to job sites, but wound up leaving when equipment broke and paychecks never appeared, and most recently found work driving a local farmer’s sugar beets to Montana.
By this point, Gregory said, he’s had about enough. When he first got here, an application filed with job services meant non-stop calls from potential employers. Now, his phone rarely rings.
“Quite a few of the people I used to work with have all gone back home, a lot of them accomplished what they wanted,” he said.
With many companies cutting wages, the long hours and stress of an oil field job are no longer worth it for him, and it’s time to move on.
“I’m used to a lot of change, I’m used to rolling with the punches,” he said. “I’m also always looking for a new adventure,”
For others, like Joshua Feist, whose first jobs in the oil industry were in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, staying here makes sense.
Feist, 28, first traveled to Williston in 2011, after laboring on offshore oil platforms as a deckhand, doing rigging and working with oil testers and explosives. The training served him well, and he’s held down jobs in the Williston area regularly over the course of the past four years.
He arrived back here in the spring, and recently moved into a new apartment. He’ll start work on oil rigs in about a week.
“You never want to listen to what other people have to say. People are just in panic mode, as soon as oil prices go back up, they’re going to come rushing back up here, but I already got my foot in the door,” he said, reaching for his phone, which has an app showing current oil prices. “It will go up.”
When work got harder to find as the industry started to shrink, he narrowed his focus, watching to see which companies had the most trucks on the road, and inquiring there about jobs.
“It would be up and down, I never really had a hard time, but I’m a go getter. I hit about five or 10 different people. I talk to people,” he said, pointing out that boots on the ground are what fuel oil production.
Wells continue to need maintenance, and holes need to be completed, Feist said.
“There’s a lot of work going on right now, mostly for experienced guys. The new guys, they’re just thinking about the money, they don’t understand the extreme conditions and the hard work that needs to be done,” he said.
The south Louisiana native, who won’t let the winters bother him even as he’s spending much of the workday high in the air on rigs, said he sees opportunity in Williston that doesn’t exist elsewhere. He hopes to save up to start a carpet cleaning business here, drawing on his experience from early jobs back in New Orleans.
“I came back because I was going to make some money, get a little more established and start a business. Williston still has the opportunity to grow,” he said.
Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com
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