WILLISTON, N.D.—Tshala Kadima and five of her friends were working at a meat processing factory in Illinois when they heard about the money to be made in western North Dakota. In search of higher wages and a fresh start, the group jumped into a car and drove to Williston last week.
Three days after their arrival, the six were well-acquainted with the Command Center downtown, hoping to land temporary employment and, eventually, full-time work.
“We came for a job and they pay much better than what they pay back there,” Kadima, 25, said of hourly rates in Illinois.
She and her friends are among those who are still coming to Williston to work, despite reports that there are few jobs left after oil prices plummeted. National media have proclaimed Williston a ghost town and have aired grim suppositions about city leaders’ pre-downturn investment decisions, but still, barely a day passes without at least a small handful of newcomers arriving at the Command Center ready to file a resume.
Kyle Tennessen, the facility’s manager, greets about three to six new jobseekers daily.
The people that he’s seeing know that there’s an oil industry downturn, but are willing to take a risk.
“There’s nothing better in their town, and they have the glimmer of hope,” Tennessen said.
There are jobs to fuel that hope, although the bulk of current work is not in the oil field.
Now, only about 10 percent of the jobs that come into the Command Center are with oil and gas companies.
Most of the demand is in construction, but there is administrative work as well, along with labor opportunities in warehouses, housekeeping and on farms.
Most jobseekers put to work
In Watford City, which some real estate experts say is on pace to surpass Williston’s population in coming years, the story is much the same.
Oil and gas work has dropped sharply, but other industries are picking up and people are still coming.
“I rarely ever have any oilfield jobs now. Most of it is construction jobs, and we have some in hotels and moving,” Jesse Maynard of the Watford City Command Center said. “I am seeing new people, some say they came up a month ago, others say they got here two weeks ago.”
The steady flow of new people seems to be a constant in northwest North Dakota, staffing agencies say.
“It’s people from all over, coming in and trying to land on their feet,” Becci Warren of the Dickinson Command Center said.
North Dakota Job Services estimates there are about 1,000 jobs in the Williston area.
As the downturn continues, people who live outside Williston often file resumes online with the center and wait for calls from employers, but others, like Kossi Adayi, still prefer to make the trip first.
“You gotta try”
Adayi, 33, came to Williston last month from Chicago. He’d had jobs working in factories, but grew tired of the lack of career opportunities there.
“My cousin told me about this place to come and get a job,” he said.
Adayi hopes to open his own taxi business, but so far, hasn’t had much luck getting in touch with local cab companies.
“If somebody can just give me 10 minutes and tell me how they got started,” he said on a rainy morning in late September.
He’d worked just one four-hour shift in a field during his first two weeks here, but is determined to persist.
“You’ve gotta try,” Adayi said. “I just hope I get something soon.”
Varying levels of need
Many newcomers wind up seeking help before finding stability. Lynea Geinert runs Community Connections, a Williston nonprofit that often serves as a resource for people who are new to town. Although demand for assistance has dropped from the peaks of about two years ago, Geinert still sees about 20 people a week, many of whom are from out of state or other countries.
“There are people arriving here all the time, they think they can just come in and get a job and have housing,” she said. “We know that it’s not like that, it takes time to find a job and start a job.”
On a recent Monday, four out of her five clients that day had arrived over the weekend in Williston.
“They’re desperate people, and they want to help their families,” Geinert said. “It’s still out there that we’ve got jobs.”
Still, few seem to expect the same frenetic hiring climate that existed several years ago. Most recent arrivals have high school diplomas, and job seekers with college degrees aren’t uncommon.
In late 2013, when Williston’s Command Center was processing up to 50 new applications and deploying 250 people a day, most of those workers either had very few skills, or years of experience.
Now, the spectrum seems to have shrunk.
“It’s more middle ground,” Tennessen said. “There are a lot of families (coming) as opposed to single workers, and a lot less rotation work, with more demand on more skilled individuals.”
Bill Schwartz drove to Williston last week after he was laid off from a job hauling crude oil in Colorado.
His luck in the energy field mirrored the price of oil — for 10 years he owned and operated a trucking business before the work ran out this summer.
Schwartz, 64, follows openings on websites such as Craigslist, and said in 2014 there were three times as many jobs across North Dakota. The number dipped to a low this spring, but now is starting to climb.
“It seems that when things slow down they lay off, then hire more experienced drivers for less pay,” he said.
Despite that, Schwartz is optimistic. He’s been to Williston before during slow periods out west, and knows there’s work to be had hauling sugar beets and potatoes in the fall.
“I just got here a few days ago and I’ve been put to work several times,” he said. “Day to day it’s a lot better than the rest of the country.”
For now, Schwartz is content as a transient worker. He lives in his truck, and doesn’t mind working temporary jobs.
Others, though, came to Williston with the intention of finding a new home.
Adayi hopes to bring his family here after he is settled, and Kadima and her friends have relatives in Africa who they want to bring to the United States.
“Some of us have already thought it out, and we are going to stay,” Kadima said.