This Young Man Is Chasing The American Dream In A North Dakota Oil Boomtown

James Woodward Williston North Dakota

I was sent to Williston, North Dakota to look into the booming oil scene and find out what it takes to get a job.

My first morning there, I met a young man living in his van who’d shown up two weeks before and quickly found employment.

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It was five degrees at 7:20 in the morning when I stumbled upon James Woodward in the parking lot of the Williston Community centre. For $3 a day workers hit the community centre for a shower and try to find out who’s hiring among the employed workers.

He was crouched down; boiling some shrimp flavored Ramen noodles on his camp stove. I talked with him while he ate his breakfast in the cold. It started snowing and messing up my notes, so I sat in my rental car, scribbling as he talked.

He finished by saying he was only working part-time at the moment and didn’t have to be to work until six.

“Feel like showing me around?” I asked.

He did, and ended up spending the next couple of days going around with me while I took pictures and talked to anyone who’d stand still long enough to offer an opinion.

James is 24, has two years of college and an EMT certification. He refused to take out student loans at 15 per cent to fund the rest of a nursing degree and had been working at whatever jobs he could find for two years while living at home.

Despite working incessantly, he hadn’t had health insurance in years. I noticed he kept rubbing his right wrist and I asked him what was up. “I think I broke my wrist again last year,” he replied. “Playing hockey. I couldn’t afford another fifteen-hundred bucks to get it fixed.” 

He flexed his hand out in front of him. “So, I deal with it.”

James was unable to find an EMT job in his Oregon hometown as “5,000 people applied for the same job with the fire department,” he told me. He’d been working retail, as a mover and a messenger before a friend’s father told him about the Williston oil boom.

James Woodward Williston North Dakota

When his messenger job started requiring insurance that left him making about minimum wage, he traded his Impala to his dad for a 1990 Ford Aerostar with 230,000 miles, an original engine, transmission and spark plugs and committed to forging his way in Williston.

“I baby’d that van every inch of the way out here,” he told me patting the hood. “I’ll call it home as long as I can.”

When he left he had $380 in his savings account; his dad gave him another $120, and his older brother pitched in $40 more. He was down to 80 bucks when I met him on Friday and his first paycheck wasn’t coming for another week. He had been sick for days, fever keeping him up nights as the sweat froze to his skin, thawed and soaked his sleeping bag inside the van.

James’ first stop when he got to town was Job Service of North Dakota. “The worst place to find a job,” he said. “Anywhere else but here,” he said as we parked out front. “All they told me was, ‘look at all the people that are hiring.'”

Then he went to Bakken Staffing where he found out that he really needed his Commercial Drivers licence, to drive the big trucks, and that to get his permit he needed to be a resident for six months and have an address. The car would not cut it. He put that on his list of things to figure out once he found a temporary job.

While doing his laundry at Bubba’s Bubbles, “A great place to network and find out about job openings,” he told me as we drove by, someone said he should keep an eye out for jobs in the free weekly paper, the Shopper.

It didn’t take long for him to figure out those jobs were getting snatched up pretty quickly, so he called the publisher to find out what day the papers were distributed.

“Wednesday afternoon I parked at the Shopper’s office waiting for the truck to pull in from the printer,” he smiled.

The driver cut open a stack and gave him the first one. He started calling and lined up an interview at Federal Express.

The staff there, he found out, had all quit, to a man, after leasing their mineral rights to the oil companies.

Williston Bubba's Bubbles

James was hired on the spot and started work after his background check went through a few days later. At $16 an hour with immediate, full benefits, if he worked 20 hours a week, his supervisor apologized, and told James he knew that he wouldn’t be there long, but to try and give him some notice when he found a better job.

“I’ve got a phobia about going into debt,” James told me on Saturday. “I was accepted to Oregon State and when I sat down to sign my loan papers, I just couldn’t do it.”

His plan is to work four years in the oil fields, try and bank $100,000 a year, finish school and pursue his interests. “With money in the bank, work will be so much more enjoyable,” James said. “Everything will be more enjoyable.”

He knows it won’t be easy. He’s shooting for a wireline job, a position that will keep him largely out of the cold, while he uses a computer to slip measuring devices deep inside the oil wells.

Wireline jobs start at about $120,000 a year and companies prefer applicants with no experience so they can train them from scratch themselves.

While there I heard one wireline operator say he’d just gotten off work after 56 hours. Every eight hours is a standard rate of pay and every other hour up to 24 is overtime. The multi-day shifts each work like that, with operators taking breaks and resting when they can.

Work schedules are often two to three weeks on, and one or two weeks off. It’s a gruelling routine that James is eager to start.

I asked him if it was tough, leaving his family, who he’s really close with, and his fiancé Ruth. “Definitely,” he said. “But the world has changed, you just can’t make it with a normal job anymore.”

We were walking outside under a sky as big as I’d ever seen.

“There’s no security anymore,” he sighed. “It’s scary. These jobs, they come and they go. I just want a little security.”

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