Unlike UND's Grand Forks campus, which is in the oil boom's orbit but out of its chaos, Williston State College sits squarely at its heart. On the frigid November morning I visit, gas flares flicker like bright banners from the snowy prairie. In Williston, a town of 15,000 turned petro-barony, oil tankers back up at stoplights. A digital sign above a spartan-looking motel flashes: LIVE HERE FOR LESS! $699 A WEEK. The college's Petroleum Safety and Technology Center is located in a prefab warehouse amid a vast industrial complex operated by Halliburton and other energy companies.
It's commonly said here that oil companies are so desperate for workers they'll hire anyone capable of completing an application. But the six students in Williston State's lease operator program -- which is teaching them to "monitor, troubleshoot, and operate oil and natural gas wells" in exchange for around $10,000 in tuition, books and room and board -- hint that technical training is now essential to employment. Today, they pore over electrical schematics, then use an array of circuits and switches on an oil-pump simulator to balance the level of fluid pouring into a small tank.
Nicholas Attigah, clad in safety glasses, is Senegalese; he came here from Atlanta in 2007. Unable to find work with an oil company, he took a staff job at one of the dozens of man camps, complexes of prefab huts and trailers built to handle the influx of workers. Attigah sees this program as the first step towards becoming a petroleum engineer. "I'm not going to leave North Dakota. I'm going to go all the way through, right here."
"Oil and gas is probably the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. right now," says Ed Spencer, who left a paralegal job in Boston to come here. "The opportunity is there." Spencer says he has already been offered a job but is committed to finishing the program. Meanwhile, to get by, he works nights at the local Walmart.
Austin Nielsen, 18, agrees. He grew up in nearby Tioga, where his father supervises a natural gas plant. "I'm going to start here and hopefully work my way up, the way he did."
In large part, industry is pushing prospective hires into the classroom. The North Dakota boom has been hampered by a tremendous attrition rate, says lease operator program director Billy Giles. He saw the same thing in Texas, where oil companies tapped him to design similar courses. "(They) went to the colleges and said, 'Look. We're hiring a hundred people off the street. We're investing tens of thousands of dollars in each, and after a year we have 20 left.' "
According to executive search company Boyden, hiring, attrition and coping with poorly trained, inexperienced personnel costs oil companies worldwide between $32 billion and $45 billion a year. In response, they've begun to subcontract training to places like Williston State. Prospective employees also benefit, insists Giles. Although his students now pay for training they'd once have been paid to receive, it eases the way to high-paying jobs. "We became a boot camp. If somebody could survive our two-year program, they were on the fast track to a supervisory or administrative position with an oil or gas company." In Texas, he adds, it was common for students to have multiple offers before their sophomore year.
After the school announced the Williston program in early 2012, it received over 200 applications, staggering for a first-year program. But that's hard to reconcile with the mere handful of students in class. Giles says the extreme climate and cost of living -- the college has limited dorm space and rent in town can exceed $2,000 per month for a studio -- explain the scant enrollment.
Those factors also discourage some qualified teachers. "We'll pay an adjunct $1,600 for a semester course. They can make that in a day of consulting," Giles says. In November, Williston State and four other North Dakota colleges will share a $14.6 million Labor Department grant to expand energy programs. Williston plans to hire additional staff and support more students. Bismarck State College wants to streamline certification through its online petroleum production curriculum -- sidestepping some costs of running a physical school.
The immediate future appears promising for soon-to-be-grads, especially in the Bakken. But though the number of oil and gas jobs has climbed steadily since 2004 -- topping out at 195,500 last August -- it's still a far cry from the early 1980s, when there were over 265,000 positions nationwide, until an oil glut crashed prices and caused massive job losses. "I see this as a good investment. We're trying to set ourselves up for jobs that can last for decades, depending on how long this plays out," says Spencer. "We'll see."
Back at UND, I ask Russell Carr if he thinks the U.S. oil boom will last long enough for students pursuing advanced degrees to be rewarded for their educational investment. "It's the Wild West out there. I think you'll be able to make a lot of money for quite a while," he replies.
But even though Carr has enjoyed his first few months at UND, he's keeping his own options open -- including where he might go after graduation. The Bakken, he says, is a "rat race." But geological engineers are needed in fields far from the oil patch, he points out, smiling. "Alternative energy is also necessary."