Bakken Conference focuses on workforce development

By Patrick C. Miller | July 24, 2018

North Dakota Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford is the former mayor of Watford City, a small town located in the heart of the Bakken shale play. When he spoke during the fourth annual Bakken Conference & Expo in Watford City, he knew firsthand the importance of workforce development for the oil and gas industry.

Sanford noted that he and Gov. Doug Burgum were on a mission to meet the workforce challenges during the Bakken’s latest resurgence. As he spoke in the expo hall of the Rough Rider Center where the conference was held, he asked whether students were being invited to attend such events.

“The teachers get it; the kids get it, but the parents are still in the mode of sending their kids to four-year schools,” Sanford explained while praising the skills initiative program launched by the McKenzie County School District, which helps children become acquainted with employment opportunities in the oil and gas industry. “That’s something very innovative right in the middle of the Bakken that’s so necessary.”

Sanford also referenced the panel discussion at the conference focused on securing a future workforce and initiatives between industry and education. Participants included Dale Patten, president of the McKenzie County Job Development Authority; Darius Frick, western Williston Basin district superintendent with Whiting Petroleum; Linda Pitman, Williston Basin regional manager with Equinor (formerly Statoil); Patrick Bertagnolli, human resources director for the Rock Mountain division of Nuverra Environmental Solutions; and Steve Holen, McKenzie County Public School District superintendent.

Patten outlined the concept behind the McKenzie County Skills Initiative, a collaborative effort with the McKenzie County School District in Watford City, Williston State College, the University of Mary at Dickinson, Train ND in Williston and the Small Business Development Center and the Job Development Authority in McKenzie County.

“The idea behind it is to work on workforce recruitment, retention and training to provide the highest quality workforce that we can for industry locally,” Patten said. “This includes a broad range of opportunities beginning with the elementary school about the types of jobs we have and on into the high schools with job exposure at multiple levels—job shadowing, hands-on experience—and even to the level of matching classes.”

As Holen explained, “We’re doing some new initiatives regarding workforce and college readiness, basically preparing students for the next level. Workforce training for industry is obviously a huge component of what we are in this area, and we want to help meet that need. There is a tremendous opportunity in our area to work together.”

The vision for the program, Holen said, is to develop a career tech center and a workforce training center, incorporating high-level K-12 programs while working with industry to bring in other career options. Frick, Pitman and Bertagnolli all acknowledged that their companies preferred to recruit locally because such employees tended to be committed to their communities.

Frick said that industry needed to do a better job of getting the word out about employment opportunities. “As a whole, our industry over the years has not done of good job of really advertising who we are what’s available out there,” he said. “It’s not only jobs, these are lifelong careers. I don’t know that we’ve focused hard enough to get it out there to our kids that you can go to school for a two-year or four-year program. You don’t have to move outside the state. Those careers are right here in your home town.”

Bertagnolli told about trying to recruit truck drivers who previously worked for Nuverra and how those efforts resulted in calls from drivers already working for the company. It taught him and the company an important lesson.

“Existing employees in this industry carry a tremendous amount of influence,” Bertagnolli noted. “They’re a point of validation for those who have been here. They’re asking, ‘Is it real? Are you happy? Would you recommend that I come back?’

“As I understand it, there are 32,000 employees in this industry in the Bakken,” he continued. “That seems like a lot of people, but I’m here to tell you that it’s a very small world. For us in this industry to hit our future targets, it’s critical current employees are accountable and feel appreciated.”

As a result, Bertagnolli said that he and other Nuverra managers attend 10 different safety meetings a month throughout the Williston Basin to make themselves available, answer questions and give company updates. Nuverra now has a better than 90 percent retention rate among its drivers.

“Our message is that industry business leaders are coming together to find better methods to create awareness and position our kids for great things right here in North Dakota,” Bertagnolli said.