North Dakota oil patch employers struggle to stay staffed in highly competitive environment

IndustriesAssociated Press

The advertisements in bar bathrooms across the oil patch aren't likely to hawk drink specials or upcoming events. Rather, the space is generally reserved for want-ads for jobs that pay almost $20 an hour.

Jobs are plentiful in western North Dakota, where boom is now more than half a decade old and many new arrivals find employment soon after they arrive.

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In this environment — where starting pay at fast-food joints or supermarket checkout lanes can start at more than $15 an hour — employers are constantly struggling to stay staffed.

Just 0.4 resumes were submitted per open job in October in Williams County, where oil boom capital Williston is located, according to Job Service North Dakota. The county's unemployment rate was just 0.8 percent.

Cindy Sanford is the manager of the Williston office for Job Service, a state agency that helps connect employees with workers and administers unemployment benefits and workforce training.

"There isn't anyone here that doesn't need help — including us," she said, adding that companies who have used her office's services have been impressed with her staff to the point that some were recruited away.

Deanette Piesik knows that feeling well, as the head of the Williston office of TrainND, a state agency that provides training for oil field workers. Her branch trained 16,000 workers in 2013.

Instructor salaries at TrainND average between $90,000 and $95,000 a year, but it doesn't compete with oil wages. "They come to work for me and I get them ... certified and authorized to teach these classes and they become very valuable," she said.

Even hospitals find themselves in a bind. Mercy Medical Center CEO Matt Grimshaw has seen his turnover rate drop from about 40 percent a year ago to about 30 percent now, but says the hospital consistently has between 50 and 60 jobs open.

It's particularly hard to hold onto support staff. "We have a much higher turnover rate than anybody would like because of the competitive nature of that sector of the workforce here," he said.

And recruiting health care professionals also proves difficult, so Grimshaw has turned to getting nursing staff from the Philippines. He estimates Mercy will have 50 full-time international staff by the start of 2015.

Williston Chamber of Commerce director Scott Meske has a staff of three.

"I can't even come close to paying them enough — I know they could walk down the street and double their wages," he said.

But when you can't compete on wages, it takes other things to retain employees.

"It is about culture, it is about benefits," he said, "it's about treating them right."