Relocating to Fargo ND to get in on that sweet oil boom $$$ a good idea?
January 6, 2015 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Asking for two of my closest friends: What's the reality of life and work in Fargo? Could two city-living adults with no college degrees make a better living and save money out there without sacrificing access to suburban comforts like movie theaters or having to live in a crime-infested neighborhood?

Two of my longest and closest friends are a newly married couple of modern liberal hippie-types who are struggling to make ends meet. Right now they live in a populated and very liberal city, paying more than they can afford to rent a room and making between $11-16/hr working entry-level tech and service jobs. (Their wages hardly match the cost of living, their take-home pay is just barely covering everything without even touching the debt they share.) It's driving them absolutely crazy and they want out now.

Someone put a bug in their ear about Fargo, ND being a modern-day gold rush of high-paying entry-level jobs because of the massive oil wealth in the area, but my concern (possibly out of ignorance) is that the fantasy just isn't true. The $500/mo rental homes and $13/hr Burger King jobs they've been talking about sounds borderline crazy.

Tell me/us about life in Fargo, employment, and the realities of living the oil rush so I can help my friends make an educated decision. Assume we know nothing about what type of work is available (tech?), nice/bad neighborhoods, the cost of living, the type of people that live there, etc. All options and opinions will be considered and very helpful!
posted by Snacks to Work & Money (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In general Fargo is a long way away from the oil fields. Try Williston, or the area around the Bakken oil fields. There are lots of articles online about life in that area. is one example.

Generally, oil booms come with high living costs, high salaries, little in the way of culture, and depressing living situations. People are in for the high salaries and leave as soon as they are financially set.
posted by blob at 3:26 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Well for one thing, then price of oil is in freefall so I'd be a bit circumspect about what chilling effect that may have on domestic oil production. That is, according to some, precisely why opec is not providing price support. The price depression is surely temporary, but what that means for labor and production in places like Fargo is to be seen.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:28 PM on January 6, 2015 [17 favorites]

Currently, Williston ND has some of the highest, if not THE highest, cost of living in the entire country. I recently heard an NPR piece about how there's a Swiss firm building a mall there, that has to include housing for the workers, and that they're worried about KEEPING the workers there at $10/hr plus housing, because they'll be looking for field jobs. BUT--here's a quote from google when I type in "highest cost of living ND"

"The western North Dakota town of 18,000 people is the most expensive place in the United States for renters, according to a survey by Apartment Guide, an online website for apartment hunters. A 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment costs an average of $2,394 a month."
posted by TomMelee at 3:29 PM on January 6, 2015 [12 favorites]

Having said all that, Fargo is actually a nice, livable city if you can endure the cold. Look for "moving to Fargo" articles such as this or this.
posted by blob at 3:30 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think your friends need to do some more research. The center of the oil boom is Williston, and Fargo is over 400 miles away from it. There are certainly upsides to living in Fargo -- it's going to be significantly cheaper than, say, Portland, but it's no oil boom town.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:31 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

This National Geographic article paints a rather bleak portrait of one town:

A population that in the past two years has soared from about 1,700 to at least 6,000 and, Sanford estimates, perhaps as many as 10,000. A housing shortage so acute that men—and it’s still mostly men—are forced to sleep in their trucks or in overpriced motels; pay “gouge-zone” fees to park their campers, RVs, and house trailers; or live in one of the expensive prefab, dormlike “man camps” that serve as instant but sterile bedroom communities for towns and work sites. Streets clotted with noisy, exhaust-belching tanker trucks, gravel trucks, flatbeds, dump trucks, service trucks, and—the personal vehicle of choice in the oil patch—oversize, gas-gorging pickups. More crime, more highway accidents, more medical emergencies. People on fixed incomes forced to move because they can’t afford steep rent hikes. Overtaxed water and sewer systems. Prostitution. Registered sex offenders at large in the community.

And that's just the housing situation, never mind the high risk of exposure to toxic chemicals- of which the long-term health effects are still unknown.
posted by invisible ink at 3:44 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oil is tanking and a lot of domestic oil projects are not going to be profitable at these prices. If all the stories you read about $20/hr Walmart cashier jobs and people paying through the nose just to rent trailer park space sounded like a bubble, that's because it basically was. If I were working in the oil industry in those areas, I would be concerned for my own job, let alone moving there to find employment.
posted by pravit at 3:45 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

...without sacrificing access to suburban comforts like movie theaters...

It's possible you're joking, but in case not, the Fargo-Moorhead metro area has over 200,000 people. I guarantee you there is as much suburbia there as anyone could wish for and no one is snowmobiling 200 miles to the grocery unless they want to.

It is overwhelmingly white, in case that matters to your friends.
posted by dorque at 3:48 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Third-ing that the plummeting price of oil makes this a bad plan. I have friends who work in Fort McMurray, Alberta (a Canadian boomtown similar to those in ND) and the good times have clearly come to end. Layoffs are imminent.
posted by ewiar at 4:04 PM on January 6, 2015

Somebody, I think Rolling Stone or Salon, had a pretty long article hanging out with a couple of truckers in ND trying to get in on the boom. It was a pretty bleak picture. Had your friends been there 3 years ago maybe it was a good idea. Today? Probably not so much.
posted by COD at 4:05 PM on January 6, 2015

Kate Beaton has an interesting take on living and working in a place like this.

posted by sevenless at 4:11 PM on January 6, 2015 [4 favorites]

The cost of living in an oil boom town is preposterous. Yes, the wages are higher, but the prices of everything else are super-high. Housing tends to be near impossible to get and is often sub-par. Unless they're skilled labor or have an unusual connection for housing, this is not a good plan. This is especially not a good plan now that the price of oil has plummeted.

If they can save enough to move, it sounds like they might want to consider that, especially if the liberal city they live in is $$$ (see Bay Area, California). But, lots of research first.
posted by quince at 4:22 PM on January 6, 2015

This is an area where I have some experience. I would not do this. I would strongly advise any family members or very close friends against this. Like, jumping up and down yelling kind of strong advisement.

Oil prices are tanking (at the same price as April 2009 at the time this question was written, which was during a worldwide economic recession). The oil industry, like many other cyclical businesses, hires and fires as part of the strategy to handle these kinds of price swings. Unless your friends can bring skills to the table that are in short supply due to the "Great Shift Change" (read: highly technical and/or specialized things like process design, heavy equipment maintenance, etc) they likely won't be able to keep steady employment in the industry at this time.
posted by conradjones at 4:54 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've got a cousin currently working in the ND oil fields; he's currently nervously looking for something, anything, elsewhere --- he doesn't want to get caught in the crunch: when the 2008 recession hit, he was working in Vegas, and you'd better believe doesn't want to be unemployed like that again. And what someone mentioned above about the cost of living near the oil fields is true: high salaries have led to unbelievably high housing, food and other costs. In other words, unless they already have lots of very specialized experience in a very niche job market, at best they'd end up financially right where they are now: in entry-level and unskilled jobs that barely pay the bills.

Fargo isn't the same boomtown the oil towns have been: it's somewhat more stable. But oil towns or Fargo itself, be very, very aware of North Dakota's weather: it'd be a major shock to most folks. Plus you say they're "liberal hippie-types": are they aware of ND's extreme political conservatism?
posted by easily confused at 5:08 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fargo is a nice town, but as others have pointed out, is nowhere near Williston and the Bakken formation.

Williston, at least the last time I was there, was not a welcoming place for liberal hippie types. I can recall several instances during my short stay when young men leaning out of pickup trucks shouted homophobic slurs at me.

I'm fond of North Dakota; I was born there. It's a hard place to live (weather, people), and the comforts of a bigger city just do not exist anywhere in the state.

Almost my entire family worked in the oil industry. It's hard and incredibly dangerous work.

There are plenty of places in the US with a low cost of living and access to decent work. If your friends' current city isn't working for them, they could try the tech corridors of the Southeast. If interested in the Midwest they could try Minneapolis, southern Minnesota, or the Quad Cities.
posted by Handstand Devil at 5:19 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far, this is pretty educational. I'm really sorry if I wasn't clear enough, but I'm asking about living in Fargo specifically. My friends would not be moving to get oil jobs, as neither of them have any relevant skills -- they just want to take advantage of the strong economy and low unemployment rate (2.2%).
posted by Snacks at 5:23 PM on January 6, 2015

The low unemployment rate in ND is an artifact of oil jobs. If oil companies stop hiring, all those people will suddenly be competing for every other job in ND. Your friends' idea is a terrible one.
posted by ewiar at 5:38 PM on January 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

I know a guy who is an artist who uses ND oil industry as his "day job" a few months out of the year.

He seems pretty miserable while actually there/working, though I'm not sure if it's the work itself, or various occupational hazards (remote area with few creature comforts as you mention, the fact that most of his coworkers are uneducated/not very cultured, no time to work on his art, the cold weather, I think he and his S.O. might have to be long-distance when he does this, etc).

It also has to be mentioned that both he and I grew up in oil country in Louisiana and he may already have had oilfield related skills.

If I did this, though, I would do so with an awareness that the whole conceit has probably peaked. I especially would, as others have mentioned, keep enough savings so that you could get out at any time and not have invested anything in putting down roots there.
posted by Sara C. at 5:44 PM on January 6, 2015

So glad you clarified, and added that Fargo 2.2%. Most people here are answering a question you didn't ask, about working in the oilfields.
Still, I appreciate all the caution expressed here, and especially ewiar's point that a crash in oil will impact Fargo too. That said .. I think it has a lot to do with what kind of people your friends are. I've done this sort of thing a few times, and my experience has always been that the deciding factors are:
-- common sense on the ground (e.g. you rent and be frugal)
-- tenacity in holding on to low-pay jobs for a while
-- ability to upgrade (waiting tables at a better restaurant beats slinging hash at a dive)
-- aggressiveness in finding the good jobs that are out there
-- creativity in presenting oneself. A good resume can trump a college degree.
-- flexibility in being able to say, well, it's no go. Let's head elsewhere.
I'm a good ways from that situation now, in a settled and well-paid career. But I've done it before and I could do it again, in the event the economy goes way south. My bags are always packed.
posted by LonnieK at 5:53 PM on January 6, 2015

Tell them to come to Nashville! Growth predictions are very strong, and cost of living is less than a lot of places. I have lived long in Seattle and Portland, and Nashville is comparable, for all the basic differences.
posted by mmiddle at 6:03 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have your friends consider a temporary foreign worker (TFW) permit and try the Alberta oilsands or another Alberta boomtown like Grande Prairie. As horrible as Fort McMurray Alberta is supposed to be, it's evolved into a city of sorts (more than 120,000 counting its transient population) with mosques, some surprisingly fantastic ethnic restaurants, and what might be the nicest leisure centre (pool, fitness, etc) in all of Canada. As expensive as it is, it's not as expensive as ND and there are dorm options for living at the camps- Suncor has, literally, thousands of beds
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:56 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I live in Grand Forks, a little over an hour north of Fargo. It is true that the unemployment rate is low and you see "now hiring" signs everywhere. Although most have been the typical low paying fast food and retail variety. That $13/hour for working at Burger King is not likely. $500/month for rent may get you a crappy place in Fargo, but definitely not anywhere near the oilfields.

That being said, if they can get something tech related at a higher pay rate then they are getting now, then maybe a move to a place with lower cost of living would be worth it. Fargo has Microsoft, but I have no idea if they are hiring anything entry level. We have an Amazon call center here in Grand Forks.

There are definitely movie theaters around, and Fargo has a decent downtown area with a theater playing indie movies along with bars and restaurants nearby. Do they have a car? Public transportation technically exists but does not have greatest hours or reach. It is possible to deal with it during the summer but not this time of year when wind chills will be -50 like they will tomorrow morning.

Do some more research and find out what jobs are available and if they are worth moving up here for. Good luck.
posted by weathergal at 7:03 PM on January 6, 2015

They just want to take advantage of the strong economy and low unemployment rate (2.2%).

If I were them I'd be super cautious, and as suggested, do a hell of a lot more research, regardless of what jobs they're looking at and how far away they are from Williston: they'd still be in an oil and gas state. The whole area is just starting to tip over into a bust, perhaps temporary, perhaps not. Oil is $50 a barrel. The kind of drilling that's going on in ND is not economically viable at that price, and it will affect the entire state, and it doesn't matter if they have jobs in the biz or not; here's why:

I've been through several busts, and I've lived most of my life in places with boom/bust cycles. Fargo may be more stable than the Williston area, but they're still going to feel it. I have a very niche specialty, the kind that means I'm scheduled months in advance by rigs, and every single job I had scheduled there over the next 5 months has been canceled. That means people like me won't be stopping in Fargo to buy gas, going to McDonalds for breakfast, staying in a hotel, or stopping by Wal-mart for water and socks. The rig crews I'd be working with won't be either. It means the tool pushers whose wives live in Fargo are going to be sweating about the cost of their houses. The heavy influx of truckers will slow down, and they won't be stopping by for gas/Wal-mart/laundry either. The diesel mechanics in Fargo are going to start feeling the pinch. And so on, and so on. A bust means those wages go down. It means the real estate jobs go away, as does the construction crews. It means a line of U-hauls on the highway the morning after the last day of school.

And here's the other thing: the money that comes in from the oil fields affects not just service jobs but gov't jobs at all levels too, because the state is bringing in hundreds of millions in tax revenue; the bust may physically happen in western ND, but it will be felt at the university in Fargo.

So this may not be a good idea for your friends right now; if they're set on doing this, they should wait until oil prices start to swing up again (which they will) or look for jobs like the tech sector that are not so much service economy dependent.
posted by barchan at 7:32 PM on January 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fargo might not be the answer, but they could do more research and consider other cities with relatively good cost of living/salary ratios. Seems like that's what they are really after and they're just fixated on Fargo b/c someone told them that's what Fargo offers. How about Omaha, Charlotte, Knoxville, Atlanta, Houston, Colorado Springs?

Some lists to consider:
America's Most Affordable Cities
5 Cities with High Salaries, Low Costs of Living
Best Cities for High Pay and Low Expenses
posted by aka burlap at 7:36 PM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Have your friends consider a temporary foreign worker (TFW) permit and try the Alberta oilsands or another Alberta boomtown like Grande Prairie

Tanking oil prices are killing Alberta, massive layoffs are imminent. IMHO, moving to either ND or Alberta in search of the oilfield gravy train is exceptionally foolhardy at this point in time.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 1:25 AM on January 7, 2015

The low unemployment rate in ND is an artifact of oil jobs.

Nebraska, Utah, and Minnesota all have extremely low unemployment rates right now as well, and they have essentially no connection to the oil industry.

Think of the Midwest as five sub-regions: north, south, east, west, and Chicagoland in the middle. The western and northern parts are booming right now, Chicago is doing okay, and the southern and eastern sections are really doing poorly. Most of these places have no connection to the oil industry at all. That means there are tons of great cities to move to if you're moving for economic reasons... Minneapolis, Denver/Boulder, Omaha, and Salt Lake City would be at the top of my list, and Chicago is a good choice if you like Really Big Cities.
posted by miyabo at 6:39 AM on January 7, 2015

Best answer: As a current Fargo resident, sorry I'm so late to the conversation --

As others have said, the oil boom isn't touching Fargo's economy; we're just not part of it, not in an economy-changing way. That's actually a *plus* seeing the plummeting price of oil. Those people out west are going to head east and pick up any free jobs in our area once the bust starts grabbing hold of the Bakken.

First thing: tell your friends to look at the weather map right now. The cold is not for the weak; if you can make it through December through March --when temperatures drop to the point that cars simply don't start even when plugged in (and you DO have to plug in your car's block heater), when your furnace runs almost constantly and your gas bill if $400 a month to keep the -10* temperatures on the outside, and it is physically painful to be outdoors without gloves or a hat on -- you'll be fine, but if not those months are torturous. The cold is not an inconvenience or annoyance, it is a brutal entity that even my wife from Wisconsin avoids leaving the house at all costs in the winter. There are large chunks of the year where we are colder than the surface of Mars.

Politics: Fargo is more conservative than its neighbor to the north, Grand Forks -- not that Grand Forks is a Portland or anything, but liberal hippie-types I've know prefer Grand Forks. The cost of living is pretty close between the two cities. Here in Fargo we rent a three-bedroom, 1,600 square foot house for $845 a month; I commute 2 miles to and from work every day, so I fill up on gas every two weeks. Hardly anything is more than a 20-minute drive. Cost of living really is low (aside from heat bills in the winter).

Crime has been on the upswing a bit; someone robbed a bank branch in a grocery store a couple days ago, there have been a number of gun deaths and stabbings, but generally crime is pretty low. We used to never lock our doors when the kids walked to school so they wouldn't have to fumble with their keys when they got home, car doors are often left unlocked. Heck, one time I left the tailgate on our minivan open overnight, nothing missing. An unsecured bicycle has been lying on the edge of our alley for two months now and nobody has touched it because it's not ours so whoever it belongs to might come back for it (I think it was left behind by people who moved out of the apartments next door).

Jobs: Both here and in the Bakken (I have been out that way for work), the low unemployment means that skilled, well-paying jobs are all filled, and it's the Wal-Marts, McDonalds, and other unskilled businesses hiring, because that's the logic of a low unemployment: workers can more easily pick and choose where they work, employers need the jobs filled, so unless you've got very specialized skills there's not a lot of open jobs waiting. Being a computer-person actually works well for Fargo; we've got a fast-growing tech sector here with privately owned incubators, a CoCo location, a 3d printing workshop, and more tech social events than I can shake a stick at. If they move up here, there's ample opportunity to network with other techy types several times a week, between the Million Cups , the TedX, the aforementioned, etc. The tech sector is tightening a bit, though; Microsoft laid off a number of employees, some tech companies have moved elsewhere over the years, but none of that is particularly unusual given the volatility of the tech sector.

When you put together $9 an hour with a low cost of living, even on the unskilled end of the bar things are pretty comfortable, but don't expect to find $25/hr or $50,000 a year as an entry-level position like you can find in the Twin Cities or another metro area; deflation in living expenses corresponds to lower pay to begin with. It's not horrible, it's just that on the East end of the Dakotas we're not scrambling to fill positions like out West where I saw signs offering $15/hr at Burger King in Minot...but then a 1 bedroom apartment costs $1,000 a month, so it all evens out in the end there, too, if you really want to make your way in the Bakken.

If they do adjust their goals and want to go for oil field work: have a job first. do NOT just drive out to Williston because of low unemployment and hope to sign a contract on day one. Even if you're lucky enough for that to happen, housing for a married couple will not be easy to find.

Edit: "what kind of people" -- see "How Fargo Of You" -- 'Minnesota nice' flows over into our region. Lots of German, Norwegian, and Swedish people, so soft-spoken politeness is the rule.
posted by AzraelBrown at 9:08 AM on January 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think AzraelBrown shared a lot of good information. However I would like to note that housing in Grand Forks is more expensive than Fargo, due to the high occupancy rate of rental property.
posted by Silvertree at 9:29 AM on January 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

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