By Laura Tode
Everyone’s hiring in the Bakken. From the new hotels springing up like wildflowers, to the established oil companies that were around for North Dakota’s first oil boom, it seems to an outsider like anyone can find a job; but there isn’t a single employer in the Williston Basin or beyond who hasn’t struggled to find the right worker for the job. It’s an unending challenge. However, in many cases, employers in the oilpatch are finding veterans can offer those sought-after soft skills – work ethic, responsibility, loyalty, resiliency, and determination – that other applicants cannot.
Still, many veterans are unemployed. The unemployment rate for working-age veterans is about 12 percent compared to the national overall unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
“You hear a lot about unemployed veterans across the country, but there’s a pretty good solution for the problem right here in the oilpatch,” states Kevin Iverson, the executive director of the North Dakota Employer Support of Guard and Reserves (ESGR).
The ESGR is a nationwide organization that advocates for members of the National Guard and reserves and newly-discharged service members. One of the primary objectives of the organization is to help them find jobs. In Iverson’s experience, veterans are a sought-after demographic group in the Bakken.
“I think there’s a very good match between people leaving the military and jobs in the oilpatch,” he says.
The Bakken presents a host of challenges for workers such as adverse weather, remote location, and long working hours. Those conditions are much like the conditions recent veterans encountered while on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iverson says. Their experience has given those soldiers gritty determination. It’s honed their decision-making skills, and it’s offered them the chance to “think on their feet” with little supervision.
In addition to work ethic, responsibility and drive, veterans, especially those fresh out of service, tend to be in good physical shape, and with the regular drug-testing done by the military and reserves, they’re less likely to use drugs, says Iverson.
Beyond the Bakken, the oil and gas industry is attracting young veterans who are eager to work in the energy industry and make a good wage.
Phillip Young, 30, landed in Billings, Mont. a year ago after leaving full-time service in the U.S. Army, infantry, stationed in Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. He spent a little less than a year in overseas duty at the closing of the Iraq war, and the GI Bill is helping him cover the costs of college. He’s earning an associate’s degree in Process Plant Technology from City College Montana State University Billings. The degree prepares students for work in refineries, chemical plants and power plants. He’ll also be qualified to work on pipelines, pump stations and drilling rigs in the field.
Young says the army taught him the value of hard work, dedication and responsibility, which he believes will
serve him well in college and beyond. Like many students in his classes, Young is drawn to the oil industry because it offers variety and income potential. He is hoping to find work in a refinery, and although he’s from Florida, Young wants to stay in Billings, where there are three refineries – ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and CHS – all located in the immediate area.
“Hopefully, at least one will offer an internship for me,” he comments. “It’s a technical degree, so that should open some doors in the oil industry.”
Young’s instructor Richard Wilson spent 32 years working at refineries for ExxonMobil, and he’s encouraged to see young people interested in the industry. Non-traditional students, including former military personnel, usually excel in the program, Wilson says. With projected growth from Bakken oil and an aging workforce, technically skilled workers are in demand nationwide. An education gives workers an advantage in hiring, and an education with experience almost guarantees employment.
“The industry is looking for something that says you’re trainable, and that you already know something,” Wilson states.
This year, employment opportunities for veterans in the oil industry garnered some attention in Washington with an amendment to the American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act that would have required all oil companies with domestic leases to give hiring preference to veterans. The amendment was rejected in February. Little if any reason was given for the decision, but part of the reason may have been that most oil companies already give hiring preference to veterans. In the Bakken, the veterans’ hiring preference also extends to companies including BNSF Railroad and Knife River Construction.
“Nothing prevents companies from adopting a veterans hiring preference,” says Iverson. “And the companies here are a pretty patriotic bunch.”