3:20am

Tue December 18, 2012
Economy

The Downsides Of Living In An Oil Boom Town

Originally published on Tue December 18, 2012 11:18 am

The population boom in Williston, N.D., has been a blessing and a curse for many local businesses. Williston, the fastest growing small city in America, is enjoying an oil boom and has seen its population double in the past two years.

At the city's brand new McDonald's, manager Vern Brekhus struggles every day to maintain his staff of nearly 100 workers.

"It's a pain, it's a real pain," Brekhus says. His staff used to be in an upbeat mood, he says. "Now it's like, how many people do I gotta hire today? How many people do I gotta let go because they didn't show up? It never quits."

Brekhus says the difficulty isn't hiring people, but keeping them.

"We may hire 'em; we won't see 'em. They won't show up for one day's worth of work. They can just go down the street and get another job," Brekhus says.

But not everyone quits. Kyle Pfifer moved to Williston from a town in Tennessee where he couldn't find a job. For him, making $11 an hour at a fast food restaurant is a big step up. An oil job might pay three times that. But for now, he's more comfortable working indoors.

"With the weather being the way it's gonna be or with the way these people say it's gonna be, I don't know if I want to be out in negative 80 degree weather with the wind blowing and everything," Pfifer says.

But for every worker who stays, there are two more who leave.

For some, the pay is still too low because the cost of living, especially housing, is soaring.

Some residents, like 16-year-old Gabriel Ramirez, find roommates. Ramirez moved to Williston from Oregon to find a job. He has seven roommates.

"Three people share the living room, and two other people share one room, and three other people share the other one," Ramirez says.

Shawn Wenko, assistant director of economic development in Williston, says rents have been a "huge" challenge.

"If you look back several years ago, you probably could have found a two-bedroom apartment for $300 to $500 a month. We've seen huge increases over the years to anywhere from $2,000 to $2,500 a month for a single bedroom apartment here," Wenko says. "So we're seeing Manhattan rates, if not above Manhattan rates."

The city is now racing to meet the demand for housing. This year, 1,000 apartments were built, and another 2,000 should be finished next spring.

There's also an acute day care shortage. Mothers who might want to work at a store or restaurant feel they have no choice but to stay home with their kids.

"Parents are desperate for any kind of child care," says Liz Fox, the director of Little Lambs Childcare, which was started last summer to help meet the demand. "Before we even opened, as of Jan. 1, we had a waiting list that almost was seven pages long."

Yet the center is less than half full because Fox can't find workers. Her competition isn't in the oil fields; it's in retail and in local restaurants.

"It's hard to compete with wages in Williston when Wal-Mart offers $17 an hour, and our starting salary is $12 or $10 an hour," Fox says.

Wenko says building more housing and day care are the city's top two priorities. But he says businesses also have to do their part.

"It's a giant puzzle where everything is a piece that needs to come together. You have to be creative. You can't just put a sign in the window and say, 'Help wanted right now,' " Wenko says. "You've got to do some sort of housing stipend. You need to include some sign-on bonuses in there."

And the hiring crunch is spreading. A Midwestern chain of home improvement stores is now flying employees to North Dakota from Wisconsin to work at its store in Minot, more than 100 miles east of Williston.

But that company and many others wanting to open stores in Williston are waiting for the supply of housing and day care to grow enough so that the employees they hire will be able to stay in their jobs.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's go now to North Dakota, where this scenario played out during a stop at McDonald's for lunch and a possible job.

KYLE PFIFER: We filled out the applications, turned them in, got our food and sat down and started eating. And I got a call before I was done eating and I had a job.

GREENE: That's Kyle Pfifer and that is the reality in an oil boom city, where there are thousands of jobs and thousands of people desperate to work. But as Meg Luther Lindholm reports in today's Business Bottom Line, it's not always a win-win.

MEG LUTHER LINDHOLM, BYLINE: The population here in Williston, North Dakota has doubled in the last two years, making it the fastest growing small city in America. This has been both a blessing and a curse for many businesses, like the city's brand new McDonald's, where manager Vern Brekhus struggles every day to maintain his staff of nearly 100 workers.

VERN BREKHUS: It's a pain, it's a real pain. You know, we used to come in here, hey how's things going, you know, everybody's in a upbeat mood. And now it's like OK, how many people do I got to hire today? How many people do I got to let go because they didn't' show up or whatever reason? It never quits.

LINDHOLM: Brekhus says the difficulty isn't hiring people, but keeping them.

BREKHUS: We may hire them; we won't see them. They'll never show up for one day's worth of work. You know, they can just go down the street and get another job.

LINDHOLM: But not everyone quits. Kyle Pfifer moved to Williston from a town in Tennessee where he couldn't find a job. For him, making $11 an hour at a fast food restaurant is a big step up. An oil job, might pay three times that. But for now, he's more comfortable working indoors.

PFIFER: With the weather being the way it's going to be or with the way these people keep saying it's going to be, I don't know if I want to be out in negative 80 degree weather with wind blowing and everything.

LINDHOLM: But for every worker who stays, there are two more who leave. For some the pay is still too low because the cost of living, especially housing, is soaring. Some residents, like 16-year-old Gabriel Ramirez find roommates. He now has seven of them.

GABRIEL RAMIREZ: Three people share the living room, and two other people share one room, and three other people share the other one.

LINDHOLM: So that's kind of tight quarters. How is that going?

RAMIREZ: It's pretty good. No fights so far.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAWN WENKO: Rents have been a huge challenge.

LINDHOLM: That's Shawn Wenko, assistant director of Economic Development in Williston.

WENKO: If you look back several years ago, you probably could have found a two bedroom apartment for $300 to $500 a month. We've seen huge increases over the years to - it's getting to the point of anywhere from $2,000 to $2,500 month for a single bedroom apartment here. So we're seeing Manhattan rates, if not above Manhattan rates.

LINDHOLM: The city is now racing to meet the demand for housing. A thousand apartments were built this year, and another 2,000 apartments should be finished next spring.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, guys. Everybody line up behind Aaron.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

LINDHOLM: There's also an acute daycare shortage. Mothers who might want to work at a store or restaurant feel they have no choice but to stay home with their kids.

LIZ FOX: Parents are desperate for any kind of childcare.

LINDHOLM: Liz Fox is the director of Little Lambs childcare, which was started last summer to help meet the demand.

FOX: Before we even opened as of January 1st, we had a waiting list that almost was seven pages long.

LINDHOLM: Yet the center is less than half full because Fox can't find workers. Her competition isn't in the oil fields, it's in retail and local restaurants.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN)

FOX: It's hard to compete with wages in Williston when Wal-Mart offers $17 an hour, and our starting salary is $12 or $10 an hour.

LINDHOLM: Williston's Shawn Wenko says building more housing and daycare are the city's top two priorities. But, he says, businesses also have to do their part.

WENKO: It's a giant puzzle where everything is a piece that needs to come together. You have to be creative. You can't just put a sign in the window and say, help wanted right now. You've got to do some sort of housing stipend. You need to include some sign-on bonuses in there.

LINDHOLM: And the hiring crunch is spreading. A Midwestern chain of home improvement stores, is now flying employees to North Dakota from Wisconsin to work at its store in Minot, more than 100 miles east of Williston.

But that company and many others wanting to open stores in Williston are waiting for the supply of housing and day care to grow enough so that the employees they hire will be able to stay in their jobs.

For NPR News, I'm Meg Luther Lindholm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.