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Minnesotans heading to North Dakota for jobs

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Companies associated with the oil business in North Dakota say they're seeing a growing number of people, not only from Minnesota, but from as far east as Wisconsin and Michigan, all seeking jobs in the oil fields.
MPR File Photo/Dan Gunderson

Tim Estey of Bemidji got laid off from his truck driving job last winter. He was having a hard time providing for his wife and four daughters. 

Estey, 35, had heard there were good paying jobs in the oil fields of western North Dakota. Last April, he decided to give it a shot.

"Actually, I seen an ad in the paper and I called the phone number and a week later, I was working," he said.

Estey started out as a truck driver, but now he's a mechanic, making about $24 an hour. He works on the big rigs that haul water to and from oil exploration sites near Ross, ND. 

That's a six-hour drive home to see his family. Estey says he'd much rather be closer to them, but with the economy the way it is, jobs back home are scarce. Now, he sees his family only on weekends.

"I ran out of work and I was on unemployment and just not making enough to make ends meet, you know?" said Estey. "So I kind of had to go where the money was, and ended up out here."

Estey isn't alone. Companies associated with the oil business in North Dakota say they're seeing a growing number of people, not only from Minnesota, but from as far east as Wisconsin and Michigan, all seeking jobs in the oil fields. 

"I ran out of work and I was on unemployment and just not making enough to make ends meet, you know, so I kind of had to go where the money was."

The competition for those jobs is fierce, according to Chuck Steffan, chief operating officer for Missouri Basin Well Service, based in Belfield, ND.

"I would say that we probably are looking at about 25 applicants for every person that we hire right now," he said.

Steffan says applicants are typically truck drivers, or workers with experience in construction or manufacturing. They've either been laid off, or have had their hours cut back. 

Steffan says he isn't surprised Minnesotans are coming to North Dakota for jobs.

"I think it's a combination of the downsizing of the economy in Minnesota, particularly, it seems like in the construction field," Steffan said. "For some, it's been a transition to the oil patch, because it's definitely a whole different industry. But we've got some very good employees that have come out of Minnesota and we're glad to have them on board."

It's hard to tell just how many Minnesotans have left the state for jobs out west. Except for census data every 10 years, Minnesota and North Dakota don't track workers coming or going. 

But there's some data that suggests the numbers could be significant. 

North Dakota keeps track of visitors to its labor exchange Web site. The site lists job openings in the state and allows visitors to post resumes. 

In 2007, fewer than 1,200 Minnesotans registered on the site. Last year, that number jumped to more than 5,000 Minnesotans. 

Leland Bosch, spokesman for Job Service North Dakota, says there was a big increase the last quarter of 2008. 

"I think they definitely are looking for jobs here, and we still had about 10,000 jobs available on that Web site at that time, so I think it was a good source for them," he said.

There are signs the big oil boom in North Dakota is slowing down. 

Oil prices have plummeted since their peak last summer, making the business less lucrative. 

One drilling company in western North Dakota laid off 150 workers this month. Other companies expect they may have to do the same.