The Rumor, “Everyone Was Making $100,000 Per Year In North Dakota”

In 2011, 2012, and 2013, I read newspaper articles, magazine articles, heard it on the radio, and heard it on television news, that workers from all over the United States were moving to North Dakota and were making  $100,000 per year.  Getting rich.  Making so much money, that they didn’t know what to do with it.

I have lived in western North Dakota for a little over four years now, met many local people and workers from out of state.  I have only ever met three people who came close to making $100,000 per year in the oil field.  One of them was a drill rig boss, one was a wireline operator, and one of them was a Union electrician.

The wireline operator told me, that a few months, with both working a tremendous amount of  overtime hours and bonus pay, he made $15,000 in a month.  But in several years of working as a wireline operator, he made $70,000 to $80,000 per year.

About one person in a thousand who came to North Dakota could be a wireline operator.  You had to have a commercial drivers license to drive a very large tractor truck that contained about $150,000 in special equipment.  You had to be the farthest thing from an idiot or dumb ass, in order to be able to operate and understand the equipment.  You had to be able to stay in one spot and work for maybe 24 hours straight or more, being filthy dirty, tired, and cold.  And when you were filthy, tired, and cold, you had to load, rig, and detonate explosives.  Most people are not capable of doing this job.

The Union electrician that I knew, he and his co-workers would sometimes work seven days a week, ten hours a day, for months at a time.  At $40 per hour, that’s $3,400 per week, about $14,000 per month.  After working about four months like this, a project would be over.  Not all projects were like this.  Some projects were fewer hours per week, and only a month or two in duration.  Neither my friend or his co-workers were willing or able to work ten hours per day, every day of the year.  The best year that my Union electrician friend had was $90,000.

About one worker in a thousand who came to North Dakota was a Union journeyman electrician.  About one worker in a thousand who came to North Dakota could be a wireline operator.  These two highest paid oil field workers that I ever met, almost made $100,000 per year.  So why was there this popular widespread rumor going around the world that all of the people who came to work in North Dakota were making $100,000 per year?

One reason why there was this rumor, was because the reporters and journalists from Los Angeles and New York would get sent to Williston for three days to do a story about the oil boom, they would go to a bar and start talking to everyone, ask people how much money they were making, ask them to prove it.  There were many people that could show a one week pay check for over $2,000, including me. Many people worked seven, twelve hour days in a row, I did.  But I didn’t do this every week.  Most people aren’t going to be boasting in a bar in Williston about making $600 a week, and run and get their pay check to show a reporter.  The reporters who got sent to Williston from the west coast and the east coast for three days to cover the oil boom here, seldom if ever saw how things really were in western North Dakota.

I could write several pages about all of the truck drivers that I met in western North Dakota that were broke because they had not been paid for the work that they had done.  (I will write about it in a future post.)  I could write several more pages about all of the people that I met in western North Dakota that were broke and living in their cars.  Why was there this rumor going around the United States that all of the workers who came to North Dakota were making $100,000 per year?

Here is what I think about the reporters and journalists who came to North Dakota.  They might not have wanted to be in North Dakota at all, and would have preferred to have been back home in Los Angeles or New York where they were comfortable, and it is civilized.  After getting off one of the fifty passenger jets that land in Dickinson and Williston, they were probably ready to do some reporting at the nearest bar.  In a bar, a new school, a new prison, you don’t trust the people that run up to you and start talking to you.  But the people who came up to the reporters and started giving them the story about how things were, were the people the reporters got their information from, (though these people that came up to the reporters running their mouth might have arrived in Williston a week before.)

The next day, it was probably a big relief for the reporters and journalists to find that the Chamber of Commerce was so willing to give them all kinds of information about the oil boom, and was so considerate to hook the reporter up with a local real estate developer who very graciously drove them around in his Chevy Suburban.  Can you imagine how difficult it would have been for a reporter or journalist to rent a car, drive around in the snow in an unfamiliar area, and possibly make a wrong turn into one of those truck stops or Walt-Mart with all of those wretched looking people?  Who were those wretched looking people?  They looked like they were living in their cars or something.  It was a lot easier to be driven around by some business person in their Suburban and be taken to meet their business associates who worked in real estate and development, who provided them with more than enough information to write their story over lunch at a nice restaurant.

It was in the interest of the real estate agents, property investors, real estate developers, and business owners, to get the story out, that everyone who came to work in North Dakota was making $100,000 per year.  There was already a shortage of housing, more people relocating here would mean being able to raise housing prices and rents even more.  An over abundance and surplus of workers would mean that the wage rates would go down, and business owners would make more money if they could pay lower wages.  Newspapers, magazines, radio, and television helped lure and trick people into relocating to North Dakota by spreading rumors that weren’t true.

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