Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Oil fields attract young laborers in eastern Montana

Jack Healy's story in today's New York Times suggests that a generation of young men in eastern Montana may be choosing work in the oil fields over college as the extraction/resource boom continues in the northern plains.  The dateline for the story is Sidney, Montana, population 5,191. Sidney is county seat of tiny Richland County, which has a population of just over 10,000, but up nearly 4% between April 2010 and April 2011.  The county's poverty rate is just 12.6%.

Healy writes:
It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.
Healy quotes several of the young men--and women--who are taking advantage of the resource boom while they can.  One is 19-year-old Tegan Sivertson, who works long days monitoring pipelines for a gas company.  He drives up to three hours each way to the remote rigs: 
I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could.  I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.
Healy also quotes a young woman, Katorina Pippenger, still in high school in Bainville, Montana, population 208.  Bainville is in Roosevelt County, just north of Richland County, and Pippenger drives across the state line to nearby Williston, North Dakota, where she earns $24/hour as a cashier.  (Read more about the boom in Williston and environs herehere, and here).  Pippenger's goal is to save enough money over the next few years to move to Denver.  "I just want to make money and get out," she said.  Though contiguous to booming Richland County, Roosevelt County has apparently not shared much of the wealth.  Its poverty rate is currently 24.4%, but the county's economic metrics are skewed by the fact that it has a majority American Indian population.  (An earlier post about Roosevelt County is here).

Indeed, Healy notes that this "trend" toward work over college is quite localized, not having spread to other regions of Montana.  However, employment opportunities in places like eastern Montana and North Dakota are attracting the labor of not only local, young Montanans, but also people from across the country.  Healy writes that" schools in places like Sidney are buckling, as enrollment rose about 20% (that is 140 students) in just three years.  As across the state line in North Dakota, Sidney's school district is struggling to hire teachers who can get by on an annual salary of just over $30K, even as apartments can rent for as much as $1500/month.  

Indeed, what Healy reports regarding young people eschewing education may not really qualify as a trend--even in booming Sidney and Richland County.  The percentage of those over the age of 25 with a bachelor's degree or higher was less than 16% for the period 2007-2011, well below the national average of about 30%.  This suggests that high school graduates from Sidney and Richland County have never been much focused on higher education.  Healy himself acknowledges that, even in Sidney, "a majority of graduates are still choosing universities and community colleges."  I would be surprised if, literally, more than half of Sydney's high school graduates pursue college of any sort.  Few places in rural America have ever had a culture that valued higher education, nor a local economy that really valued it. What we see in Sidney, then, is part of a boom and bust cycle in which--at least for a time--the local, blue-collar work on offer pays a living wage.  And that, of course, is increasingly rare anywhere in the United States. 

Here is another post about "good" blue collar jobs back in the rural northwest.  Here is a post about neighboring Dawson County, which the NYT labeled a "place of low consequence."  Here is a post about mining jobs elsewhere in Montana. 

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