En español | As the sun set on the plains of northwestern North Dakota, Charles McKinney, 55, woke up in the crowded bunk room of a small metal trailer parked in a stubbly hay field. McKinney and five other men began preparing for their 12-hour night shift on an oil derrick. Everything they wore — insulated coveralls, steel-toed boots, thick gloves, hard hats — was coated in oil.
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The crew walked the short distance to the 136-foot-high derrick, where they work with few breaks in frequently sub-zero temperatures. The day shift headed back to their trailer to eat, watch TV and go to bed.
Nearly half of McKinney’s 13-man crew are past 50, including a 61-year-old. They’re among the thousands of job seekers who have poured into the Williston Basin oil patch since 2008, when new drilling techniques freed up what may be the biggest oil find in North America.
High-paying oil jobs have sparked growth and pushed up pay in other job sectors, especially construction, stores, hotels and restaurants. Bursting schools are scrambling to hire teachers. Williston’s hospital plans to add 50 to 100 jobs and has brought in doctors, nurses and technicians from as far away as Alabama, Texas and California.
Seniors have been among the big winners in the booming job market. Men and women age 50-plus accounted for over a quarter of new hires in the Williston area in 2010.
On McKinney’s crew, only he and rig boss Wayne Nelson, 59, have extensive drilling experience. All the men endure the more than 80-hour, physically demanding work week, inhospitable conditions and long weekly drives home for a simple reason:
“I’m making $42 an hour, I have great medical and retirement benefits,” says McKinney. Despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 13 years ago, he works on the rig to support a family of six. The job is one week on, one week off. McKinney drives six hours back and forth every week to his home in Spearfish, S.D. “I hope I can do this for 10 or 15 more years,” says McKinney, who was recently promoted to rig boss.
Age is not a factor on the job, says Tim Madden, a 40-year-old boss on another rig. Trainees start at $25 an hour, he says, and “if you have some common sense and are in halfway good shape, you can do the job.” Still, he says, it’s hard to find enough employees. Most applicants come to him by word of mouth. The application includes a brief telephone interview covering experience and transportation options.
New access to the vast Bakken formation — a thin band of oil-rich shale nearly two miles beneath the Williston Basin that spreads from North Dakota and Montana up to Saskatchewan and could contain up to 24 billion barrels of oil — has brought frantic growth to the region. Williston, the epicenter of the boom, has nearly doubled its population to 20,000 since 2007.