Layoffs low in Williston

Workers, some who've been laid off or can't find jobs in the oil industry, wait for temporary assignments at the Command Center temporary staffing agency in Williston, N.D., on Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. Oil output in the Bakken region, which includes parts of North Dakota and Montana, have slowed as oil prices have dropped. Some workers' hours have been cut back. Others have left the region to return home, while they wait for work to pick up again. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

WILLISTON — Cindy Sanford, manager of the Williston office of the North Dakota Job Service offered a snapshot of the job scene in the wake of recent layoff announcements at Thursday‘s MonDak Energy Alliance meeting.

She was one of four speakers at the event, which also included Stephen McNally, general manager of Hess Corporation, and Dennis Haider, with MDU Resources Group. For their comments, see the related article link at right.

Worldwide, more than 100,000 layoffs have been announced across the oil and gas industry since prices began to slide last summer, according to a Bloomberg tally.

In recent weeks, companies with a presence in North Dakota have added to that tally. Schlumberger will let 9,000 go worldwide, Halliburton 6,000 and the recently Halliburton-acquired Baker Hughes is laying off another 7,000.

Despite that, there hasn’t been a big wave of layoffs traveling through Sanford’s Williston office.

“There are some layoffs yes, we are seeing that,” she said, “but there are also jobs.”

Her office still has 1,912 openings posted, which Sanford estimates is a mere 40 percent of the total number of jobs out there. Many companies don’t post with Job Service North Dakota.

“Companies come in and say, ‘How much is this going to cost me?’” she said, shaking her head. “We’re free. Most people don’t know that, so they don’t come into our office.”

Before the slump in oil prices, Job Service North Dakota had closer to 4,500 listings, she acknowledged, but with 1,912 openings still on the boards, the need for skilled labor clearly remains high.

Those with job skills are quickly finding new employment, she said, and some for higher pay.

“A guy came in today who had been laid off, and he got a new job for $2 more an hour,” Sanford said.

The four-county area continues to sprout brand new jobs, too, Sanford added, right in the teeth of slumping oil prices. In January, there were 11 registrations for new businesses, she said, six of them related to oil and gas.

“This is still the land of opportunity,” she said one of them told her. “We’re coming up, we’ll be here in November, and we need 35 people.”

Williams County unemployment remains at 1 percent, Sanford said. McKenzie, Dunn and Mountrail counties are all hovering between 1 and 2 percent.

Williston Mayor Howard Klug told the audience a telling detail that Sanford didn't mention.

Sanford’s own office has five of those 1,912 openings.

There’s going to be a two-day job fair from 2 to 7 p.m. March 11 and 12 at the Grand Williston Hotel, put on by Job Service North Dakota and other stakeholders. The first day is devoted to oil and gas industries and the second day to all others. There’s a housing component in the fair this time, too.

A few slots remain for the oil and gas industry, though the second day is already full. Those interested in purchasing a booth for the job fair, or who want to post a free job listing with Job Service North Dakota, can reach Sanford at 701-774-7900.

Also during the MonDak meeting, Cory Chorne gave an update on the Western Area Water Supply, a regional water system formed by Williston, McKenzie county, Williams County rural water, R & T Water Supply Association and BDW.

Population projections have been revised upward to as many as 160,000 people in the region within 20 years. That means an estimated output of about 50 million gallons a day will eventually be needed from the system. Right now, the planned capacity is about 28 million gallons a day.

That doesn’t mean there will be water shortages, however, Chorne said.

“We have about 20 years before we think we will realize that population,” he pointed out. Ultimately, there are solutions to handle the increase, but much will depend on where the majority of that new population ends up. The current system relies on moving treated water from the plant at Williston, which has near unlimited access to water from the Missouri River. The further from Williston that additional population lands, the more it will cost to move the water to where ever it needs to be.

Right now, 60 percent of the treatment plant’s water capacity is going to domestic customers and 40 percent to oil and gas. The latter pays 83 percent of the system's revenue, however.

Members of the MonDak audience included a wide variety of business and civic interests from both North Dakota and Montana with interests in the energy industry. Among them was Brenda Podetz of Albaugh Enterprises, LLC, which hauls sand and gravel for a variety of purposes. Sand gets packed in around pipelines, gravel gets hauled to build new roads. Alba handled transport and logistics for gravel to a large road project in the Watford area last year.

Podetz came to the meeting from Fargo to get a feel for the business climate here.

“There are a lot of agencies trying to work together to bring funding to the area,” she said. “I am encouraged by that. The surge funding is definitely necessary because the expansion here has been so quick. If we don’t start providing the infrastructure over the 20-year trajectory, it’ll be a hindrance.”

She sees affordable housing as one of the big needs if the four-county area is to take full advantage of the economic potential the Bakken boom offers. Albaugh is an example of how some of that potential is being both realized and lost at the same time.

The Williams County operation started out as an under a million enterprise, but, under Podetz' guidance as CEO, it has been able to ride the Bakken boom into the double digits.

“It’s been a success story,” she said. “But it’s very much about managing the margin and that margin is only 5 or 6 percent net, so it’s real easy to lose.”

High wages in the oil patch have forced Albaugh Enterprises to locate its accounting in distant Fargo, where they can pay a salary that is more realistic for the business, while remaining in line with that community's housing and living expenses.

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