Rock Center   |  October 31, 2011

Boomtown: North Dakota town becomes hot job market

Williston, North Dakota, a once sleepy prairie land, has turned into a place with thousands of available jobs. An oil boom has led to an influx in the town's population and jobs. Rock Center's Harry Smith reports.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: And as we get under way here tonight, there are protesters spending yet another night outdoors here in New York and in the cold in dozens of other US cities . Their rallying cry has been there's nothing for them in this economy, and for a lot of people that means jobs. Well, tonight we have something extraordinary to show you. We're going to take you to the place where the jobs are. The one place in this country where, if you're willing to work and willing to move, there is a job waiting for you. They're hiring so many people so quickly it feels like a different planet there. Tonight Harry Smith starts us off with the story of a Boom Town that bucks the national trend.

HARRY SMITH reporting: Western North Dakota where the Big Sky country really begins. A land of austere beauty lush with amber waves of grain, and for the last few decades, a place of dwindling population and few opportunities, until now. It's an oil boom, the likes of which have not been seen in the United States for nearly half a century, a boom so big it's gushing jobs, by the thousands. At the heart of this boom is Williston , North Dakota . It's a confluence of trucks and noise and dust and bustle. It's a town racing to keep up with the influx of jobs and people. The trucks rumble through like modern buffalo, a stampede that can't be stopped. Starting salary for truck drivers , 80,000 a year. You can make $15 an hour at Taco John 's. In town or in the oil field , if you're willing to work, the money is here.

Mr. WARD KOESER: You know, there's opportunity here, and that's what we all need is an opportunity.

SMITH: Long-time mayor, Ward Koeser , says Williston 's fast becoming host to job seekers from all 50 states . In just five years, its population has nearly doubled to 23,000.

Mr. KOESER: We'd have two to three thousand job openings here and more come on the scene every day.

SMITH: Two to three thousand?

Mr. KOESER: Two to three thousand. Yeah, a lot of jobs get filled every day, but it's like for every job you fill, another job and a half opens up.

Ms. GRACE KRUGMAN: Let's all do this together. Eighteen minus eight, let's count backwards.

SMITH: One of those jobs went to Grace Krugman from Colorado . Until August, Krugman was a laid off school teacher looking for work for more than a year.

Ms. KRUGMAN: I didn't think I'd ever teach again.

SMITH: When she applied for a job at the now exploding Williston school system , the school basically said, 'When can you start?' What was the feeling when they called up and they said, 'Yes, we have a job for you'?

Ms. KRUGMAN: I was so excited. It was like, I don't know how to explain it. I felt like, 'Maybe I am worth something again.'

SMITH: Her husband, Miles , was employed back in Colorado , but his work was slowing down. When they got to North Dakota , the licensed electrician felt like he had won the lottery.

Mr. MILES KRUGMAN: I called four companies, and I received four offers inside of two hours.

SMITH: This has got to be the only place in America that's like this.

Mr. KRUGMAN: Yeah. It just feels like a whole different part of the world. It's the only place in America that can be like this right now.

SMITH: If what Williston 's got is jobs, what it doesn't have is housing. So this is -- this is home sweet home ?

Ms. KRUGMAN: Yep.

Mr. KRUGMAN: This is home sweet home .

SMITH: For now the Krugmans are making due with a single bedroom in the basement belonging to the high school geometry teacher.

Mr. KRUGMAN: We're fortunate.

Ms. KRUGMAN: Mm-hmm, we are.

Mr. KRUGMAN: Very fortunate.

SMITH: Oh, you feel lucky to have it?

Mr. KRUGMAN: Yes. It's nice. There's people living in their cars...

Ms. KRUGMAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KRUGMAN: ...and their campers in Walmart .

Mr. GEORGE GREEN: I keep my clean clothes that I wash over on this side, and these are my dirty clothes.

SMITH: If John Steinbeck were alive, he would be writing about men like George Green , Phil Hazelburg and Patrick Parker .

Mr. PATRICK PARKER: One of my goals is to make my daughters proud of me. I want to make them proud because I worked a good job for 10 years, and then for it to go away. I just -- sorry, sorry. It just gets to me a little bit.

SMITH: Patrick hitchhiked all the way from California . Phil got here in his beat-up van from Wisconsin . And George scraped up enough money to buy a bus ticket from Florida . At night he sleeps in his friend's truck.

Mr. GREEN: I always have my toothbrush, toothpaste, and razor that I shave and clean up at Walmart in the morning. And it's -- this is home.

SMITH: Each man willing to cross the country to regain something he'd lost. How soon do you need to get a job?

Mr. PARKER: Tomorrow. I got 12 bucks left.

SMITH: In your pocket?

Mr. PARKER: Yes, sir. No bank account.

SMITH: Would it be too far-fetched to say that desperation brought you here?

Mr. PHIL HAZELBURG: The last couple of years I've been laid off, and the unemployment exhausted on me, and I'm turning wrenches part-time for family and friends and that's not cutting the bills. So, yeah, desperation.

Mr. GREEN: Ditto. I mean, just want to have a decent life, that's all.

SMITH: For those who've come to Williston with little cash and looking for a fresh start, they might be surprised to find out how much they have in common with a man who may be most responsible for this boom, Harold Hamm . Hamm is the son of sharecroppers. His company, Continental Resources , has more drilling rigs in operation than anyone else in the field known as the Bakken Formation . Hamm is now a billionaire, several times over.

Mr. HAROLD HAMM: Our company's calculation that we did last year for this Bakken field up here in both North Dakota and Montana was 24 billion barrels.

SMITH: Twenty-four billion barrels.

Mr. HAMM: Twenty-four billion barrels?

SMITH: Where does that fit in vs. say the Gulf of Mexico or the north slope of Alaska ?

Mr. HAMM: Well, Prudhoe Bay , you know, the numbers I've seen up there are 13 to 14 billion barrels. So this would be the largest field by far.

SMITH: Is this as big as anything that's ever been found in North America ?

Mr. HAMM: It's bigger.

SMITH: It's hard to comprehend just how big this oil field really is. Imagine an area the size of Massachusetts , Connecticut , and Rhode Island combined. And when all the drilling is done in a decade or two, there'll be as many as 50,000 wells out here just like these. The oil has always been here. It's just been too hard to get out of the ground. Drilling techniques developed in the last few years changed that big time . Ninety-nine point five percent of all wells drilled in the Bakken last year produced oil. Oil here is just that abundant.

Mr. HAMM: You know, 30,000 jobs up here have been created, 18,000 jobs we're estimating unfilled.

SMITH: That's how many you think are unfilled?

Mr. HAMM: Unfilled. I have one friend of mine up here that's looking for 500 truck drivers right now.

SMITH: Help wanted doesn't even begin to describe it. The Williston hospital is undergoing a $25 million expansion with 60 job openings. Even the city is hiring, from clerks to cops. Then there's the housing boom.

Mr. KRUGMAN: Yeah, it's on an acre and a quarter.

SMITH: Acre and a quarter. Our newlyweds, Grace and Miles Krugman , they just put money down on a modular home and hope to move in by Christmas . Do you guys feel like pioneers a little bit?

Mr. KRUGMAN: A little bit. We're definitely in on the very beginning of this.

SMITH: As for the men we met in the parking lot at Walmart , Phil found work as a mechanic, Patrick as a truck driver , and George , a job as an entry-level pump operator in the oil fields . He'll be making five times as much money as he did back in Orlando . If there was another guy named George , and is in exactly the same situation you were then, what would you tell that George ?

Mr. GREEN: I'd tell him to step out in faith and -- because it's here. This is opportunity in Williston , North Dakota .

WILLIAMS: I'm hearing this, and the numbers don't sink in. He's got 500 openings for truck drivers now, and they're 18,000 positions behind, so the question I was asking earlier, it is true, if you're able-bodied...

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMS: ... willing to move...

SMITH: Right.

WILLIAMS: ... willing to live in some sparse conditions...

SMITH: Right.

WILLIAMS: ...there's a job for you in North Dakota .

SMITH: No question. What a lot of guys have done, they've set up what they call man camps, and they're pre-fab housing, sort of like you would see in Iraq or Afghanistan , that the military uses. And so there may be as many as 10,000 guys living in these man camps throughout the oil patch .

WILLIAMS: So a man camp has to sound like a really good idea to you. I can't help but notice you've brought me something.

SMITH: We brought a prop.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SMITH: This is a piece of the Bakken Formation . And I want you to smell it.

WILLIAMS: Oh, great.

SMITH: This is the stuff that's two miles down.

WILLIAMS: That smells like oil.

SMITH: It is. And they frack it, so they pour water into this at high pressure, and the oil just comes oozing out.

WILLIAMS: By the way, if you're going to bring me rocks from business trips...

SMITH: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMS: ...I hope we send you out to cover a gold mine one of these days .

SMITH: Something that could work like that?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's a -- that's a handsome piece of rock.

SMITH: Something from the little lady back home. Yeah, there you go.

WILLIAMS: But I'm telling you, the discovery of this rock and the oil in it may save the economy in the Upper Plains .

SMITH: Without question, it is a game-changer for US energy interests, in the fact that there's 24 billion barrels up there. They think it could be even more.

WILLIAMS: Harry Smith , thank you, pal. We're under way. Appreciate it.