Should You Move to North Dakota?

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The Bakken oil and gas fields have plenty of high-paying jobs. But you need to consider more than the paycheck.

It’s a modern-day gold rush: The U.S. Geological Survey‘s new assessment of the recoverable oil in the Bakken Formation and nearby Three Forks Formation has doubled — to 7.4 billion barrels.

People are flocking there for work, particularly to western North Dakota. The state has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

But should you move there? Consider the information below before hitching up your horse and wagon or, more likely, setting your car’s cruise control.

Surging employment

North Dakota has had massive employment gains. The biggest by far has been in Williams County, where the number of jobs more than doubled (by 12,561) between 2007 and 2011, and the county had a jobless rate of just 1.2 percent.

As a whole, the North Dakota and Montana oil patch counties saw the number of jobs increase by 35.9 percent in those years, from 77,937 to 105,891, and wages more than doubled from $2.6 billion in 2007 to $5.4 billion in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, you’ll need to have the right career if you want to cash in. These three industries produced 68.5 percent of the employment boom in Bakken Formation counties, according to the BLS:

  • Mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction – 38.1 percent.
  • Transportation and warehousing — 17.5 percent.
  • Construction – 12.9 percent.

Not all professions are in high demand. In fact, health care and social assistance lost 1,353 workers in that time frame, says BLS. While more health care workers and people in some other non-oil patch occupations are needed, housing has gotten very expensive. (More on that below.)

Paychecks are robust compared with what they used to be in North Dakota. (Even fast-food workers are now making $15 an hour in Williston, the county seat of Williams County, CNNMoney reports.) The average annual wage increased by 53.1 percent, from $30,040 to $50,553 in 2011. The national average that year was $48,043.

Soaring real estate

A large deterrent to moving to North Dakota is paying through the nose for housing. Acre lots near Williston average $60,000 but can be $200,000 or more closer to town, reports the Williston Herald. One-bedroom apartments rent for $2,100 a month, NPR says.

Think you could live in your camper? Not so fast. A law passed last year prohibits living in RVs in residential areas outside RV parks, The Associated Press says. Rents for RV parks are pricey.

Manning up for man camp

Instead, many oil industry workers are going to so-called “man camps” — temporary steel housing structures, often with dorm-style living and more rules than some college campuses.

Man camps aren’t cheap, either. According to KARE 11 News, one camp near Williston charges $100 to $150 a night, meals included.

Harsh winters

North Dakota’s winters can be numbingly cold, with below-zero temperatures at night. The average January temperature in southwestern North Dakota is 17 degrees, the USGS says.

Bottom line: If you show up in the oil patch, you’re likely to find a job with decent pay.  According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, unskilled laborers can make more than $60,000 a year. Big companies like Halliburton have jobs that pay $125,ooo to $130,000 after 1 1/2 to two years of experience, a Halliburton executive told CNBC.  

If you’re looking for work unrelated to the oil and natural gas boom, finding an affordable place to live could be a tough challenge. Perhaps your prospective employer will help with that. Don’t leave home until you find out.

Stacy Johnson

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