Jobs and Opportunity: Stories from the Bakken

Sturgis, South Dakota sits on the northern end of the Black Hills, about 30 miles from Rapid City and an hour north of Mount Rushmore.  It’s probably best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held each August.  This event is internationally renowned with up to half a million motorcyclists from all over the world attending the rally for a week of fun and entertainment.

But the rest of the year Sturgis is a quiet town with a population of 6,500.  Like many small towns across America, economic opportunities can be hard to come by, especially in recent times.  Good paying jobs here are scarce, and many young people find it necessary to move away to pursue a future filled with promise.  It is a sad realization when one discovers they must travel away from their home and family; sometimes long distances, to make an honest and successful living. That’s why many people here see the economic activity generated by North Dakota’s Bakken play as a tremendous opportunity.  Even though the Bakken formation itself is about a five hour drive north of Sturgis, it’s having a dramatic impact on the lives of many people in this area.

One such individual is Bailey Cleland.  Bailey is a 21 year old native of Sturgis.  He had planned on going into the Navy after high school, but a knee injury disqualified him from service.  After some searching he found a good job with Paragon Water Solutions, a North Dakota based company.  Paragon treats both the salt and fresh water used in the oil and natural gas development process, removing the drill cuttings from the water and allowing it to be re-circulated throughout well development.  They pioneered the use of a vacuum filtration device to clean rig water. During the three or four days it takes them to clean the water in a rig’s reservoir, Cleland and his crew live in trailers at the well site.

Paragon pays $17 per hour to start, with a raise usually offered after three months.  The crew works twelve hours per day, eighty-four hours per week.  They work for two weeks and then get two weeks off, during which time Cleland returns to Sturgis.  Workers get overtime pay for every hour after forty hours. You can see how this compensation can add up quickly or in Cleland’s words “That’s how you really make your money.”

When asked about his opinion regarding oil and natural gas development in North Dakota Cleland said:

“This is an opportunity to change your life.  It’s an opportunity to make a lot of money and get ahead and save for your future.”

Cleland said that he enjoys the hard work, the mechanical experience he is gaining, and the problem solving skills he is developing as part of his job.  He realizes the work may not last forever and he hopes to work in the industry for approximately five years or just long enough to save up enough money to start his own welding shop.

Jacob Evans tells a similar story.  Evans, also a 21 year old Sturgis native, used to work for a local pizza restaurant.  Now he works for Marquis Alliance Energy Group.  He is responsible for waste material disposal and centrifuge operations.  His job involves stabilizing the solid waste material from the well development process.  The cuttings recovered are mixed with fly ash and other substances which render them safe for disposal.  This mixture is then trucked away to a central site for burial. When asked how he likes his job he said, “I love it!  I get to work with heavy equipment, and I make really good money.”

While Evans likes his job he will be the first to tell you the hours are long and the work is hard.  He works twelve hours per day and seven days per week during his time on the rig.  He says the hard work and long hours are worth it.  Evans stated that after less than three months of employment he is making $3,600 per month, plus $50 per day in per diem pay as well as a $100 per day rig bonus for every day he is on the rig.  When asked how this new opportunity has shaped his life Evans had some profound and reflective words to share:

“I kind of got into some trouble before,” he said.  “This has enabled me to pay off some things and make a new start.  It’s a golden opportunity to make a future for yourself.  There are more jobs than people, and you can make more money than anything else in the area.”

Evans also brought up a point that is often overlooked.  The Bakken Shale does not discriminate and provides good jobs for all citizens.  In fact, Evans said it was an especially good opportunity for those who did not plan, or are unable, to go to college.

Jenn Tobin’s husband, Wade, also works in the North Dakota oil and gas fields. The Tobin’s have been married for thirteen years and have three children.  They moved to Sturgis from Clear Lake, SD in August of this year.  Wade has a degree in industrial engineering.  He had worked for a company in Watertown, SD for several years, but a bad business climate led to layoffs and he lost his job.  After a couple of other engineering jobs, Wade took a job with Halliburton.  Using the knowledge he gained at Halliburton he recently left to open his own business as an independent contractor.

The Tobin family places a high priority on Jenn being able to stay at home with her children during their most formative years.  They also wanted to send the kids to a Christian school.  The good salary that Wade earns through his employment in the oil and gas industry enabled this to come true with Jenn at home and the children being enrolled at a Christian school in a nearby town.  In this case it is clear that the oil and gas industry’s presence here allowed the Tobin’s to reach important goals they set for their family. Jenn is excited about the situation and the opportunity it presents her family.

“I love being at home,” Jenn says.  “There are some challenges to being alone sometimes, like when the snow blower is broken and the sidewalk needs to be shoveled. But I am the only child of a single mother.  I’ve always been independent and been able to manage.  I appreciate the sacrifice my husband is making for his family and the opportunity the natural gas and oil industry has provided us. This is a much needed stepping stone to achieve our long-term goals and provide for our family.”


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