Is North Dakota as advertised?
September 6, 2011 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Is North Dakota as advertised?

After reading articles like this, North Dakota sounds good, but is it too good to be true?

How good is the jobs situation there, and what are the downsides, other than the winters and the lack of "excitement".
posted by Query to Travel & Transportation around North Dakota (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press ran an interesting story over the weekend about the Man Camps that have sprung up to house some of these oil workers. The guys they talked to seemed to maintain a sense of humor about the situation, but it's far from what I'd call good living. They basically sleep and work, but even if they had time to do anything else there wouldn't be anything to do.

Even reading the NYT article you linked to, I'm having a tough time figuring out where you got "sounds good." Sure, there are jobs in the oil industry, but a lot of people have nowhere to live because there simply isn't any housing. What housing there is, sounds pretty awful. I think you might be underestimating the degree of both winters and lack of excitement in ND. They're both really, really, really severe.
posted by vytae at 2:34 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

To call winter a "downside" in ND is a bit of an understatement. My memory of winter in ND was merely passing through in January in 2004. The high in Fargo was -30F. It only got colder and windier as I went west down I-94. Every parking lot had electric outlets to plug in the engine heater. My car's engine never got above 150F on the thermostat and my 28 MPG highway dropped to 16. This is the kind of cold where I was wearing longjohns, t-shirt, long sleeved t-shirt, fleece and full carhart suit, hat, gloves, etc. driving down the freeway. I was cold in 5 seconds of stepping out of the car. I was warned in Fargo that if my car died to just stay in the car. Someone would pick me up, because the proper thing to do is check every stopped car on the freeway. Trying to walk to an exit would be certain death.

I grew up in Michigan and have been a Northerner all my life. I hope I never wind up dealing with any part of another ND winter.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 2:42 PM on September 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

“It’s a horrible way to live,” said Chris Rosmus, a Minnesotan who moved into the Vegas Motel for a month and stayed a year and a half.

Where would you live? It's seriously cold to be sleeping in your car.
posted by crabintheocean at 2:44 PM on September 6, 2011

I just read an article in the local paper describing the skyrocketing cost of living in the western part of the state. People who aren't employed in the oil fields don't make a competitive wage, so they're no longer able to afford food and rent as they once could. If I recall correctly, rent for a single-family home has increased from $300/mo. just a year or two ago to $3000 now. The food bank in Fargo has had to implement a mobile delivery unit out there.

Plus, North Dakota winters are brutal. The western bits of the state are BEAUTIFUL but pretty desolate.

Just FYI. I don't think I'd move out there unless I was SURE I could get a job, knew I didn't mind isolation, and was okay with ridiculous winters.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 3:18 PM on September 6, 2011

North Dakotan here, who has business connections with the oil fields and I go there on a regular basis.

Absolutely: hotel rooms are difficult to come by. My techs often stay in Bismarck or Dickinson -- over an hour from where they're working -- and drive to the Bakken each day.

However, oil companies have set up "man camps", as vytae said, for their employees; they're essentially the same mobile-homes that FIMA sets up for hurricane victims. They live nicely. Also, housing is being built at an enormous pace, and people are moving in as soon as the building goes up.

If you're working for a ancillary company that doesn't provide housing, you're going to have trouble finding housing -- even if you're one of the people building apartment buildings all day long. Another side-effect is that people who have lived in the Bakken are seeing huge rent increases when their lease is up, due to demand: if you've lived comfortably with $400 rent for ten years, a sudden jump to $1,000/mo for the same apartment is a big shock, and is aggravating housing when people who already live in an occupied apartment are looking for an unoccupied apartment. Also, thousands of displaced people due to Mouse River flooding are taking up temporary housing, too.

The NYT article is a little sensationalistic, though: yes, there are people living out of cars, but that's a small portion of the people who have gone to the Bakken to find work. This is probably a more realistic story on housing and small communities in the Bakken, even though it's still not rosy. Whenever people head West because of the promise of jobs, there's a significant percentage who won't be able to make it, for whatever reason -- lack of skills, bad luck, insufficient assets to get started, who are going to have stories like the NYT article.

If you're thinking about heading to the Bakken to find work, keep in mind that this is a boom-and-bust situation: I lived in the Bakken during the late 80s-early 90s, which was post-boom and things were on the low side. People aren't going to find long-term careers in the oilfields; they're likely to make a lot of money living in crappy situations and doing very hard, dangerous work -- but then the oil and the jobs is going to evaporate someday.

So, in short: out of the huge number of new jobs in the Bakken, a lot of those jobs are construction jobs, building housing for all the new people; until housing balances out with demand, it's going to be tight -- but the people who are driving the economic boom are generally able to find housing, it's just sub-optimal in the short-term, and there are people who aren't going to succeed.

(PS: Yes, winters are unimaginably cold, like surface-of-Mars cold; don't plan on taking risks if you're up here in the winter, as Mr Fabulous said.)
posted by AzraelBrown at 3:20 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite] shows 56 houses for sale in Williston, so Horselover Phattie may be correct.
posted by MexicanYenta at 3:26 PM on September 6, 2011

Hi! Born & raised North Dakotan here (Bismarck/Mandan). Mind, I left for college and now live in Chicago.

It all depends on what you're looking for, as with most things.


- wide open spaces
- quiet
- safety
- lower cost of living
- good place to raise a family and all that
- it's gorgeous

Cons (in my mind):

- The cold. You have to plug your car's heater into a wall socket in the winter, or it won't start in the mornings. -50 windchill? Not uncommon!

- If you are into the musical arts, you will find much to be desired. North Dakota does not get much in the way of bands coming through, unless you are a country fan. Art galleries are a local, folk-art affair. Though I have heard that Bismarck just got roller derby, so there's that.

- OK, this is a pro in that ND is the only place in the country you can get knoephla soup and fleischkuekle. Both are heavy foods. Most foods in ND are fried or fattening. Lots of national chain restaurants/fast food. Lots of little diners. Not much in the way or sushi or thai or vegetarian or fill-in-the-blank. So if you're a foody, you will be disappointed. For fun, people go out to a bar, dinner, or a movie.

- Unless ND has changed greatly since 2000 or so, it is very very very white. Until I moved away to college, I never met anyone who wasn't white or Native American. Which brings up racism. Yes, there was a lot of subtle (and not so subtle as well) racism towards Native Americans.

- Not walkable. The streets are empty. You need a car.
posted by Windigo at 3:43 PM on September 6, 2011

After thinking about while driving to the store, I don't think I answered the question directly:

The article you linked, and where everyone's all "low unemployment, excellent pay" is talking about the Bakken -- the oil-rich area in the northwest quarter of the state. North Dakota is a large place: the speed limit is 75 (traffic moves at 85), I94 is a straight shot across the state, and it still takes six hours to drive from Minnesota to Montana. Minot and Fargo are 4-1/2 hours apart, so the economic boom there is far removed from the rest of the state.

The Southwest quarter has some oil-boom overflow, but otherwise it's about as isolated and gorforsaken as ever. Nice area to visit, though; it's an extension of the badlandy-grasslandy parts of South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Northeast quarter has been seeing a boom of its own, but in a more metropolitan way; Grand Forks has grown by leaps and bounds over the past five, ten years, especially since they had their flood. Devils Lake has been eating the surrounding area, and the Indian reservations are about as well-off as they've ever been.

The Southeast quarter is still dominated by Fargo, although Wahpeton-Breckenridge has weathered the economic downturn well.

Aside from the Bakken, small towns have been consistently getting smaller. You've heard about how small towns are losing post offices: that's the final death-knell, not an early sign of shrinking. I've driven through many of those towns, and there are no businesses left, and the people who live there are agrarian workers who still have jobs. Bright spots like Lisbon, Valley City, etc., are nice small towns, but the ND unemployment numbers are for the whole state and the Bakken throws off the estimate -- so don't expect to find the same job prospects in Wahpeton as you can in Williston.

That's not to say that unemployment isn't low everywhere -- it's lower than the national average for most of the larger cities, but not great. Where the Bakken has a boom in underskilled labor, in the metropolitan areas there's very little underskilled jobs; there's good money if you're a welder, mechanic, carpenter, accountant, or high-level management, but there aren't a lot of entry-level service jobs outside of the Bakken. Those jobs are growing out West because the higher population means more Wal-Marts and grocery stores and laundromats and gas stations; across the rest of the state, not so much.

Other pros: Crime rate is low; taxes are comparatively low; housing outside of the Bakken and the big cities is very cheap.

Other cons: as I said above, everything is very far apart. Even on state highways, there are places where you can drive for an hour and not see a town. That's not to say there's not towns marked on the map; the town may still exist legislatively, but the physical presence may be only a couple houses. If you plan on working in one town and living in another, unplowed roads in the winter may make staying employed difficult. As Wendigo mentioned, things are rather homogeneous out here. There's also, what my wife calls "Scandinavian stoicness" -- people are quiet and reserved, and are often resistant to people who behave outside the box. They'll be polite, of course, but it won't gain you points. North Dakota still has 'blue laws' -- nothing's open before noon on Sundays. That's a big improvement -- until the 1990s, things were closed all day long on Sundays. Yup, 1990s.
posted by AzraelBrown at 4:37 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Lived and worked a year in ND. It's quite a harsh environment.
posted by scottymac at 4:49 PM on September 6, 2011

Hiya--I'm a California native who couldn't find employment there but could in North Dakota. I've been here just over a year (long enough to have experienced all four seasons!).

I agree with nearly all the advice from up-thread. I live in Grand Forks, the NE city that AzraelBrown was talking about, and I work for the largest employer in the state.

We're doing quite well in this city, and there's a lot of culture for a town in the Midwest. There is in fact a Thai restaurant (doing very well, actually) as well as a Middle Eastern one and some Mexican ones, etc. I won't argue that there's a ton of variety, but there's some. There's plenty of stores (we get a lot of Canadians coming down to shop) and the like. There's an Art festival that's well attended, a Farmer's Market every week in the summer, a lovely Greenway that is fairly heavily used, and plenty of people from other cultures. We share a border with Minnesota and that state influences this region more than say, Montana or South Dakota would in other regions of the state.

I'm from a very diverse part of the country (very, very diverse) and I haven't felt too white-washed here. In fact, I was just looking around my job tonight and there was a woman speaking Spanish, another couple of international students from Ethiopia, and a couple of Saudi Arabian students, among others. There's diversity and there's interesting things to do and there's culture. There's also people who genuinely say "Eye-talian" and don't quite understand why I cringe and people who don't know what scallops are. It's still a rural Midwestern state.

But what I'm describing is the NE, which as has been explained above, while doing quite well is not where the boom is. So keep that in mind if you're looking to move here. There's definitely jobs on this side of the state, though, if you don't want to work in the oil fields (a pretty harsh job--I know someone who does it and he's got 24 hours to get back to his job from wherever he might be or otherwise his job goes to the next person on the list. He makes bank, though).

And finally I come to the winters. Yeah, the winters are harsh. I'm used to 72F and sunny year-round so it was a bit of a shock transitioning to four seasons. But I bought a nice coat and a bolt heater for my car and the winter's fine. What people who are passing through might not realize is that the cold descends gradually and lifts just as gradually. It's pretty rare that it's 20F one day and -30F the next (though, this being the Midwest, not unheard of!). You get used to it. In exchange, people here really embrace the summer with an openness that's kind of awesome.

There's a lot (a LOT) more I could touch on but this is long enough. Feel free to MeMail me if you've got more questions.
posted by librarylis at 9:46 PM on September 6, 2011

Yes, I should have stated that I left ND in the late 90's, so my experiences of mostly mid-state are based on then. I went back for a visit last summer and as I was only there for a couple days, I wasn't able to see much. It didn't seem to have changed that much in my eyes and still seemed uber white and lacking in a variety of food options outside of chains and family-style diners. The western part of the state was always much more progressive, so if things are looking up culturally there, hopefully the rest is not far behind?
posted by Windigo at 10:04 AM on September 7, 2011

I think libararylis captured my experience pretty well. I grew up here, spent 6 years in Indiana, and am now back. Other than it is a block heater not a bolt heater in your car. ;-)

A few additions: As everyone has said, winter is harsh. It is one thing to read it. It is another to experience it. It has never bothered me, but it bears repeating that it is something else. There are times when they close the interstates because they can't keep them clear.

The eastern part of ND is close to some of the best lake country you will ever see. Minneapolis is close, and I would say it is superior to Indianapolis if you enjoy visiting a larger city occasionally.

I get the feeling you work a couple of blocks away, librarylis. Crazy to see a Mefite so close!
posted by Silvertree at 11:38 AM on September 7, 2011

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