From battlefield to the oilfield: Military veterans transition to new jobs

By Rebecca Colnar

Veterans day

Image: Flickr/Sam0hsong

The Bakken oil boom is well-known for providing high-paying jobs for those willing to work in some harsh conditions with long hours. One group of people used such challenges are America’s military veterans—and those veterans have been finding work in North Dakota.

Ken Harris, originally from Kansas City, has done three tours of duty in the military: two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He served as an Army medic.

“I retired from the service in 2008, and had a few years where I continued to work for the government,” Harris explains. “I came to the Bakken in 2011 because it seemed like a good place to start with good opportunities. I was fortunate that my wife’s family was from the Williston area, so I had a place to stay while I was looking for work.”

Harris appreciates that Job Service North Dakota specializes in helping veterans and they certainly helped him. “When I went into that job office, they treated me like I was gold. The lady working there put down the list of 200 jobs and told me to pick anything I wanted. They really do cater to vets.”

Harris found a job driving an oil truck, a job he enjoys. He said there aren’t a lot of similarities between the Bakken area and Afghanistan except the bitter cold weather. “Of course, nobody is shooting at you,” he chuckles.  He agrees that like time in the military, Bakken work schedules often keep families apart longer than many domestic jobs. “Some of these guys from out of town will work for four weeks and then go home for a week. Your spouse often has to take up all those responsibilities at home.  Even though I go home every night, I work 84 hours a week. When I have a day off, it doesn’t give me much time to get anything done at home. My wife, even though she works as well, has a lot of responsibilities managing the household.”

“In the military and working here, you wake up super early, putting in 14 to 16 hours each day,” he says. “I don’t think people realize how much of a military mindset is here. A lot of people working here haven’t been in the service, but it’s a run like the military. There is a strong work ethic, you have a job to do and you do it. When you’re on the job, it’s safety first. All these companies have a goal for no one to be injured.”

He’s happy he hasn’t needed his Army medic experience in the Bakken. “Co-workers have had a few bumps and bruises, but fortunately no major injuries I’ve had to assist with.”

Harris says, just as in the military, everything you do is about “risk assessment” before you do it. “In the military you look at a job, examine the pros and cons and see how you can mitigate any risks.  It’s the same thing in the Bakken with safety.”

He finds his current job is rewarding. “I feel that by doing what I do, I’m helping the country with energy independence. We are not relying on [foreign] oil so much. There is a sense of accomplishment that we’re doing something for the greater good of America.”

Susan Ogurek works for Job Service North Dakota, based out of Minot, with her territory including Williston and surrounding towns. “Most of the vets find us on our website, www.jobsnd.com. We have a veterans tab to click on that allows you to create a résumé, search for jobs and more. They can click on an area they might be interested in and contact us that way. Some other veterans will simply pick up the phone and call, and we get referrals from other vet friends.  We’re on Twitter, too.

Ogurek explains her is job matching the veteran with the right job.  “We need to see what their skills are. If they’ve been working on equipment and driving trucks, we can show them some good career-direction choices. We try to get them the best information we can give them so they have a good search. They need to understand where their skills fit. We have companies who will hire without oilfield experience, but having the maintenance background and clean driving record helps. There is a wide range of jobs from driving trucks to working on the rigs to all kinds of technician positions and even administrative and computer work. Whether it’s email or calls or face-to-face, we first get an idea of their background.”

The job skills expert explains that you need to have a résumé that will resonate. “If you’re at a job fair, you have about 10 to 20 seconds for them make a decision based on your résumé. Your résumé needs to show the kinds of work you are looking for. Keep in mind that although companies are veteran-friendly, it’s still important to have skills to match the job.”

Job fairs provide an excellent way to investigate possibilities and meet with different companies. In October and mid-March, Job Service North Dakota puts together a multi-industry job fair with 100 employers. “We had 132 veterans for the October Job Fair. The first hour was veterans’ preference. That meant you had to be a veteran or transitioning military member to enter the fair [during] the first hour. This gives them a great opportunity to meet with employers before the general public show up. We have received a great response from employers and the candidates about this.”

Ogurek acknowledges that companies want to hire veterans. “They know veterans are reliable, on time, have a good work ethic and that safety-mindedness has been ingrained in them. Team work and communications skills are necessary, and our veterans have that,” Ogurek says. “I have not met an employer who is not willing and ready to hire veterans if they meet the job requirements. I have the greatest job as I get the honor of helping our veterans connect and start their next career.”

Know before you go

Jobs abound in the Bakken oilfield area, but so do rumors about jobs. Susan Ogurek, veterans employment representative with Job Service North Dakota, says although there are a few companies that will hire someone who walks in the door, those are few and far between. She offers a few tips to successfully land a job in the Bakken.

  • Before you show up, do your research from home. What jobs are available? Do you have the skills necessary that match that job?
  • Work on a résumé that highlights your skills. If you have several skills, have a different résumé for each set of skills. For instance, title one “Truck Driver”, another “Maintenance Technician” and so forth. If the job requires a CDL, let them know up-front you’ve got one. Make your résumé have impact.
  • Get that résumé posted on www.jobsnd.com/individuals and on other job websites that are related to the field in which you’re looking for work.
  • Realize most companies have a hiring process including interviews and background checks, so don’t expect instant employment.
  • Make sure to find out about housing. Some companies provide it, some don’t. This isn’t a place to just show up and try to find a place to live. Do your research and find a place before showing up. Don’t come up with $20 in your pocket.
  • If you’re not from this part of the world, know that winters are cold, snowy and long and that summers are hot.
  • Use your network. Reach out to friends or family members. Some of these companies have “military recruiting folks” who are veterans themselves and are more than happy to assist fellow vets.

Looking for employees?

Gordon Gates of www.hireveterans.com says his online company has a job board where job seekers can review what’s available. “There are a half-million visitors who come through our site for jobs all over the country. That’s now we connect employers with veterans.”

If any company in the Bakken is looking to hire a veteran, Gates encourages them to post the job. “They can send me a press release about a job they have and we’ll post it.” Hireveterans.com has buttons to “Find Jobs” “Post Résumés” “Search Résumés” and “Post Jobs” so those hiring and those searching can see what job are present and who is available.

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