Kingsbury Column: North Dakota Jobs

I think the last figure I saw said there is something like 20,000 jobs available in North Dakota. Most people say sure, but they are all out in the oil patch. The employment specialist tell us that is not true. There are real shortages, especially in places like Grand Forks, Bismarck and Fargo. Of course a lot of those jobs are based on oil patch demand. For instance, the largest private business in Grafton is a firm from Houston called Diverse Energy. Their single biggest product are bulk oil tanks that are placed on different oil collection points. They also produce other higher tech products for the oil patch. There are similar companies that have moved into Grand Forks.

As well, there are many firms that have been in Grand Forks for years, some for generations, who do much of their business in the oil patch. The oil boom followed now by the the developing industry has been great for all of North Dakota.

Also, there is a lot of demand for a lot of post-secondary education because of North Dakota oil. That demand ranges from the new petroleum engineering degree at UND to many that require less than a four year college degree.

Not that I didn’t know, but I just attended a Bakken oil conference about businesses that there is a high demand for in North Dakota. While there are other reasons, the biggest problems entrepreneurs face is the lack of qualified labor.

Now that shortage occurs for many reasons. One is that it is still hard to attract many people to North Dakota, even to a place like Fargo with its size and location near the Minnesota lakes and the real urban area we call the Twin Cities. Imagine what a person from New York, or Ohio or California, or even Colorado think of northwestern North Dakota.

Imagine if the Bakken boom had occurred when U.S. employment was around the five percent mark. Realistically, the increase in fracked wells would have probably only been a fraction of the 6700 Bakken wells we now have.

Of course, as the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. By that I mean I have no doubt that American ingenuity would have come up with some form, some degree of mechanization that at least part of the demand for labor could have been replaced by machines.

We have to remember that what has happened in this state over the past five or so years is a real example of capitalism, of entrepreneurship. That can be, well just what we have seen. To put it succinctly, as was repeated many times at the conference, the boom is over. We are now into the development phase.

There is still some catching up to do. You don’t just neatly move from one phase to the other. There are still roads to build. There are still changes in spacing and siting to be accomplished that the state and the oil companies are working on. For example, by building siting roads with laterals reaching out two miles in all directions they can cut the traffic significantly.

I just talked to a water line contractor and he said that the estimate for water lines to the sites and to the cities and all the direct and indirect businesses associated with this development appear to total about 250,000 miles over the next 25 to 30 years. North Dakota is changing significantly. There is real economic and cultural change that will be occurring into the future, the next 50 years and more.

At the conference we heard about all the new restaurants that have opened in Stanley and Watford City. They are real restaurants offering real meals, actually probably better eating than occurs in 90 percent of North Dakotas towns and villages. You know longer grab a frozen burrito and stick it in a microwave.

But that growth in business is not over. The thing this conference is trying to do is have more of those businesses locate in the east, particularly in Grand Forks which they say has more room for growth than Fargo, or Valley City, or Jamestown. Of course there is room in Devils Lake and that is 90 miles closer to the oil patch than Grand Forks.

And if the industrial businesses locate in Grand Forks, or any of those other eastern towns than there will be a demand for more restaurants and clothing stores, and doctors and….

The important thing this conference is telling us, and the state job service has been telling everyone, is that this maturing of the market, this development phase alone will last for twenty years and more, and the Bakken with new technology could be a 50 year play.

The story goes on because then there is the Three Forks, and around Bottineau some of the best plays are occurring in the oldest areas, or so the new technology being used there make it appear. The 30 year old theory of peak oil appears to have been completely in error. It was written by a geologist who didn’t understand.

He just did not understand the North America can become energy independent. Yes, for you who worry about global warming (How I wish for that right now), we may need to address that issue, but just as the Harold Hamm’s of the world made us energy independent, the Gerry Groenwald’s of the world will find the answer to that, too.

And that is North Dakota’s and America’s future. At least it is if we do it right. All those people who have been writing America’s swan song were just plain wrong. That is they were wrong if we do it right, but there is no guarantee that we will do that. Not if we continue to elect certain politicans.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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