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Older Workers Move to North Dakota for New Jobs

High-paying oil jobs boost growth and salary in other job sectors

Lifetime Willistonian Mary Lou Sundby says it was a “miracle” that she and her husband, in their 70s, got an apartment in local senior housing after their rent nearly tripled last year. Some of their contemporaries have left town. “Nobody wants us. Elders were very much respected in the past, and now the feeling is totally reversed,” Sundby says.

Some of the new arrivals are putting down roots. Kris and Keith Borgeson, in their mid-50s, arrived from Minnesota a year ago after their retail fireplace business collapsed and mortgage payments loomed. “We were barely surviving,” Kris says. Within 24 hours, she had a sales job at the Ford dealership. Keith upgraded his commercial driver’s license and landed a job driving a fuel truck for an oil company for $120,000 a year — a position he found online. The couple, who have four children, are relocating their business and buying a home.

"People at home are amazed," Kris says. "They ask how can we do it at this point in our lives. But if we didn’t have Williston going on, life would be very depressing."

Martha Reynolds, 53, says she and her husband, Don, 61, have also found a much-needed second chance in Williston. “There is absolutely no work in this country, especially for seniors. If you come here, you can work,” Reynolds says.

The couple, who had made their living in construction in Las Vegas, came to Williston about a year ago to work for a housing contractor. They lived in a man camp for six months before moving into an 800-square-foot condo.

“We’ll be too old to work by the time things slow down around here,” Reynolds says. “It’s definitely the last big thing we’re gonna do.”

Reynolds says the lifestyle isn’t for everyone. “Don’t come here with your pants down. You have to have four-wheel drive, insurance and a place to live,” she says. “It’s insanely cold. Housing is impossible. And there’s nothing to do but work.”

Kay Muchow cried herself to sleep for two weeks following her move to Williston last October for a job managing a grocery store deli. She’d been laid off from a similar position in Northfield, Minn., and been contacted by a recruiter to apply at the local Economart. The store provides housing.

“I’d lie there and wonder if I had made the right choice,” Muchow, 52, says. She missed her family, her friends, cultural activities, even shopping. “Walmart is it,” she says. The women she rides motorcycles with in Minnesota teased her about all the dating options she’d find in Williston, but Muchow says the high ratio of men to women sometimes makes her feel uncomfortable.

Still, the town has grown on her. She’s made friends and enjoys exploring nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Now her son and his girlfriend may move to Williston from Minnesota for better jobs.

“At first I thought this was short-term,” Muchow says, “but now I can see myself ending up out here.”

Anna Seaton Huntington is a freelance writer who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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