Chances are you’ve heard the stories, of fast food jobs paying $15 an hour and starting salaries for truck drivers around $80,000 a year.
That’s why many people are leaving Brainerd, where unemployment was at 10.9 percent in September, and heading to western North Dakota, where the oil boom is creating thousands of jobs.
In Williston, N.D., the town’s population has nearly doubled from 12,600 to 23,000 people. Unemployment in Williston is less than 1 percent, according to NBC News.
But the jobs aren’t just in the oil fields. There are job openings everywhere in and around Williston as residents leave to go work in the oil fields.
“It’s crazy,” said Travis Carlson, a 2006 Brainerd High School graduate who since June has been working as a police officer for the Williston Police Department. “You can walk into any business, fill out an application, they’ll tell you that you have an interview in five minutes and by that night you’ll have a job. Last night I heard a guy who owns a semi-truck company is looking for 500 truck drivers right now.”
Carlson graduated from Central Lakes College with a law enforcement degree and worked for the city of Lake Park for about 1-1/2 years before heading to Williston. He had a college friend who was already working for the Williston Police Department who told him how short-staffed they were. Carlson traveled there, interviewed and was offered the job the next day. He declined it three times before deciding to uproot and move out there with his girlfriend, Tiffany Luchsinger, in June. He’s also making $11,000 more a year than what he was making in Minnesota. His girlfriend is a registered nurse and immediately got a job at a nursing home. Within two weeks, she was promoted to a nurse supervisor.
Housing is the biggest issue in Williston. Carlson said he and his girlfriend found a house not even on the market for 24 hours and they had to jump on it before it was bought from under them. People are sleeping in the Walmart parking lot and hundreds of “man camps” are set up throughout the community to help house workers working in the oil fields.
“I love it out here. It was a great opportunity and a great move,” said Carlson. “If I had to do it again, I would.”
Carlson said the growing pains in the community have generated a lot more police calls. He said in 2008-2010, the Williston Police Department had a total of about 4,000 police calls. In June alone, the police department had 1,100 calls. Carlson said the police department is hiring six more officers and five more dispatchers in January.
“It’s like a little Las Vegas, the days and nights don’t make a difference out here,” said Carlson. “You have people getting done with their shift at 6 a.m. and they go out to the bars and do what they do and then they’re drunk and getting in their vehicles at 11 a.m.”
Carlson said CNN reporters did a ride-along with the department recently and other national news organizations have descended upon the town. He said producers of the Discovery Channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” reality show plan to soon come and follow Williston police officers for a new television series.
Carlson, who also is a part-time medic for the Williston Fire Department, said he’s encouraging everyone he knows, particularly those graduating from CLC’s law enforcement program, to come out and get a job. But he cautions them to find housing first.
It’s been more than two months since Tammy Hardy has seen her husband, Jason, who left Brainerd in July after landing a job driving truck for a company in the small town of Sidney, Mont., located on the Montana/North Dakota border. It’s about an hour from Williston.
Hardy is hoping she and her two kids will be able to join him within the next several months; she and her ex-husband are going through mediation to try to work out a custody agreement so her 12-year-old son, Alex Dahl, can move with the family.
Jason Hardy is a commercial driver working for Transystems LLC, hauling coal and sometimes sugar beets. He lives in a company-owned trailer home rent-free with a few other drivers and works around 70 hours a week.
Tammy Hardy said they didn’t want to move, but after careful research they realized they can’t afford not to leave Brainerd. Several years ago her husband had his own truck and was grossing $80,000 but with the high cost of fuel and other costs, he was actually netting about $20,000 a year. They tried other employment and at one point they managed Meadowview Manor Mobile Home Community, where they live. Jason Hardy hauled trash and worked as a school custodian but got laid off from these positions.
Before her husband got his current job, they were depending on food stamps. Their financial situation was bleak.
The couple took a drive out to Sidney to visit Transystems and felt it was a good local company to work for that would still be around if the oil boom turned into an oil bust. While her husband isn’t making the large salary that truck drivers in the oil fields do — he’s making around $40,000 a year, she said — it’s a secure position and his housing is free. He’s also getting promotions and now subs as a project manager. Tammy Hardy said her husband is getting job offers continually from other companies.
“My husband is offered jobs every day,” said Hardy. “You don’t have to fight for a job out there. They fight for you.”
Tammy Hardy said they’ve gotten caught up on their bills and she’s able to be a stay-at-home mom to her son, Alex, and 7-year-old daughter, Savannah Hardy. She was thrilled because their new health insurance kicked in Tuesday.
“Before he got this job, it was literally a decision whether we stay here and be on welfare or move out there,” said Hardy.
Still, it’s been a difficult adjustment for their family. Savannah sleeps in her dad’s shirts because she misses him. She gets teary talking about her dad.
When the family does make the move to Montana, they’ll be uprooting their trailer home, too. A four-bedroom, two-bath trailer home out there costs $3,000 per month plus utilities for rent. Their house is paid for so they’ll be paying $3,200 to move it to Montana on rental land they’ve already made arrangements for, land owned by a friend of her husband’s.
Jason Hardy’s son Joseph Hardy, 22, recently left Brainerd to find employment out there, too. He left behind his girlfriend, Nadia Thorgerson, and their young children, ages 2 and 2 months.
Tammy Hardy said she knows of several people from Brainerd who have or are working in the oil fields of North Dakota, including a few from her trailer park.
The entire family is excited that Jason Hardy will be coming home for a few days next week. It’s a 21-hour round trip for him.
“We keep reminding ourselves that it’s going to be an adventure,” said Hardy, of their impending move. “It feels like the land of milk and honey out there — without the trees.”
“I’m going to miss the trees,” added her daughter, Savannah.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5858.