By Dustin Hurst | Watchdog.org
BISMARCK, N.D. – The North Dakota oil boom is producing more than oil. It’s also gushing jobs — occasionally well beyond the borders of the Peace Garden State.
Take Dirty Jerry’s, headquartered two states and more than 700 miles from North Dakota’s burgeoning oil fields. The Rifle, Colo.-based truck-washing business might even be a kind of model, one that shows Montana — and the rest of the country — how fracking can lead some companies out of a lagging national economy.
For Dirty Jerry’s, that means caring for the diesel trucks that carry critical drilling and fracking equipment across the dusty and often muddy roads. The diesels turn a reddish color beneath thick coats of North Dakota’s clay-infused soil.
And that’s where Jerry Mills, owner of Dirty Jerry’s, comes in. His workers wash the diesel trucks to keep them looking fine.
This isn’t your everyday car wash. Dirty Jerry’s employees use heavy-duty brushes, massive water tanks and high-pressure sprayers to clean each rig.
It’s grimy work, but Mills pays well. His average worker earns $25 per hour. Field supervisors bring in $35 an hour.
That means Dirty Jerry’s rank-and-file laborers make about $52,000 annually before taxes and overtime. That’s at least $20,000 more each year than similar workers in neighboring Montana and South Dakota.
Mills doesn’t think much of his decision to invest $600,000 in trucks, trailers and washing equipment to send crews to more than 700 miles from his home to Dickinson.
“I’m just following my business,” he says flatly. “There’s a lot of money to be made up there.”
THE NON-OIL BOOM
Some businesses in North Dakota, but miles away from the patch, are seeing oil exploration’s positive financial ripple effects, too.
Executive Air, a charter plane and helicopter company, is growing its ranks thanks to the oil expansion. The company, purchased by an investment group in 2007, offers twice-weekly flights between Bismarck, the state capital, and Williston, the heartbeat of oil exploration and drilling.
The flights are named for the oil field: Bakken Air.
Paul Vetter, CEO of Executive Air, says the company started the flights to meet demands of oil field service companies. While the oil companies themselves typically own their own jets and airplanes, smaller service companies use Executive Air’s services to shuttle engineers, lawyers and other workers quickly across the state.
The company also performs aircraft maintenance and upgrades and sees increased workloads from plane owners coming to the state due to the boom.
The company grew from 23 in 2008 to 50 employees today thanks, at least in part, to the patch-related workload.
THE DOWNSIDE OF THE UPSIDE
But while Mills and Vetter see the boom as an overall positive for the state, they share a common complaint: a housing shortage.
More than 60 miles from Dickinson, the state’s other drilling epicenter, housing in Bismarck is hard to come by, Vetter says.
Last week, Executive Air hired a mechanic who couldn’t find housing for his family in Bismarck. He finally rented a home in Fargo – more than 190 miles away. The mechanic plans to stay with relatives on weekdays and commute to his wife and kids each weekend.
“You can’t find housing around here,” Vetter explains.
Mills complains, too, accusing Dickinson locals of price-gouging simply to make a quick buck off the oil business.
“Everything is really bad up there,” he says of the housing market. “It’s a very expensive experience because of the locals. It’s not us.”
He hires only local workers so he doesn’t have to pay per diem or for hotel or home rental space. He does pay to rent an apartment that his area team uses as a headquarters, but he’s not thrilled when the rent bill comes due each month.
“It’s not a good experience,” he admits.
Housing is a top reason for turnover at the Dickinson Walmart. Store manager Sky Wilson says at least 75 percent of his associates leave employment either because a housing arrangement fell through or a family matter takes out-of-state workers back home.
Wilson says that while there is money to be made in this part of the country, workers moving here need to be aware of the suddenly high cost of living.
“It’s not difficult to hire, but to retain,” Wilson says. “Sometimes people don’t consider the housing situation here.”
Wilson’s store offers hire wages than many locations to lure workers, but even with the better pay, housing still makes life difficult for associates.
Walmart even toyed with the idea of building its own affordable housing, a practice already used by the major oil firms. The company eventually rejected the plan, but Wilson sees it as a positive sign Walmart broached the subject.
“I’ve heard things entertained I never would have before,” Wilson says while sitting in his storeroom office.
WATCHING PEOPLE WIN
On balance, Vetter and Wilson remain optimistic about North Dakota.
Wilson says while he sees some failures among those who come to the state seeking work, he also watches people win.
“I’ve seen people coming into town on their last nickels and dimes,” he says. “I’ve seen so many success stories.”
Vetter says the fast-paced oil life is new to the state, but may be a temporary high. He doesn’t worry, as others do, that outsiders are changing the fundamental culture of the place he calls home.
“It will calm down again,” he says. “North Dakota is not going to be lost.”