Help Wanted

Job openings outmatch the jobless in North Dakota, locking companies working in the shale development region in a fierce battle to win the war for talent. For some, the focus has shifted from attracting employees to identifying the right hires.
By Keith Loria | February 07, 2014

Job openings greatly outmatch the jobless in North Dakota, locking companies working in the shale development region in a fierce battle to win the war for talent. This has forced employers to up their games when it comes to salaries and benefits in an attempt to lure away already trained workers from the competition. Workers are not averse to chasing after the next big opportunity, especially as competing companies constantly sweeten the pot.

“People from all over the U.S. are flocking to North Dakota because they want to be part of a modern-day oil boom. Whether they hear it from friends, family, or the media, job seekers are excited about the sheer number of opportunities, the benefits, and the money to be made,” says Joann Timperly, district manager for Elwood Staffing, with an office in Williston, N.D. “One of our challenges is to identify the right candidates from among the many that apply. Even at entry level, field support does require a certain skill set and aptitude, as well as the fortitude to handle the hard work, long hours, and extreme weather conditions.”

Of course, client-specific screening criteria must also be met and the staffing agencies often supplement the organic candidate pool with recruits from targeted job fairs, online advertising and social media campaigns, and rely on its candidate networks to refer individuals with the necessary experience and/or technical education.

Allan Greer, recruitment manager for NES Global Talent, which places hundreds of people in the Bakken each year in various oil and gas companies, says offering employee top-of-the-line perks is often necessary to secure workers.

“The ways our clients have attracted the best talent to the Bakken include offering above-market salaries, paying for relocation and making housing available on arrival, even helping with a purchase of a new property,” he says. “They put a lot of effort to bringing these people aboard and the last thing they want to see is someone jump ship to a competitor or leave the Bakken entirely, so they are flexible with things like hours and time off.”

Also, healthcare is something very important to a lot of workers and the medical plans the companies offer are very attractive.

Clayton Gammill, principal, human capital for Ernst & Young’s Oil & Gas practice, says the competition among all the different employers in the area makes it difficult to not only find the right people, but also to keep them for a significant amount of time. Finding people who are looking for career advancement and long-term opportunities is vital.

“Companies can make great profits, but the key to success is finding those people to operate the technology without driving up cost significantly,” he says. “This is a business where people chase the money, but performance-based bonuses don’t always work. For many of these jobs, you are dealing with high-tech, high-dollar operations, and finding that experienced staff to import in requires you to think outside the box—be it with spot bonuses or equity or something else appealing.”

Adam Berk, a principal in Ernst & Young LLP’s human capital group, adds that the real key is training people to achieve at higher positions rather than constantly going out and finding new people. This is especially important since many of the jobs will eventually transition into requiring a more specialized workforce.

“Historically, this has been an industry that tends to buy its resources, but cracking the code to success may be in creating a path where an individual comes in at an unskilled level and you get them to that skilled level,” he says. “Even if it takes additional education and helping to front that, it’s something companies need to consider.”

Finding Talent
Companies operating in the region compete strongly with one another for the limited pool of experienced local workers.

A spokesperson from Sidewinder Drilling Inc. says it recruits in the region using a branding strategy that emphasizes the company’s culture, leadership, strategy, stability and financial performance.

According to Timperly, while the staffing company places midlevel and senior roles, its clients’ primary needs are in areas of field support, such as equipment operators, diesel mechanics, and lab technicians.

“We have found that it is not the skill set, but the inclination of the applicant that makes any given position easier or harder to fill,” she says. “Our biggest challenge is finding individuals with demonstrated job stability. We, and definitely our clients, make a big investment in each candidate—recruiting/screening, onboarding, training, etc. Any attrition affects production, which in turn affects the bottom line.”

Greer looks for candidates with solid work histories—those who show an inclination to remain loyal to their employers. These individuals can be difficult to find, he says, but they are definitely the easiest to place, no matter the position.

Semerad relies on job boards and social media for finding people to come to the area, but says that referrals from people already on the job are his No. 1 way of finding people. Meanwhile, Gammill says he has tried everything from recruiting on campuses to expanding newspaper ads outside the state to reaching out to skilled laborers in like-minded industries. Still, competition is fierce.

Love What You Do
Kevin Semerad, regional vice president at Command Center Inc. and  its division  Bakken Staffing, says that employee turnover is happening at a higher rate than normal and companies are working on ways to improve loyalty.

“To maintain employees and keep them happy, aside from staying competitive with salaries, you want to make sure your culture is strong,” he says. “Assuming all other things are equal, you need to provide them a situation where they are happy and enjoy being at work, and this will help retain employees.”

Ellwood Staffing believes it retains great associates because it offers what they need most—flexible scheduling, the ability to take care of their health with portable insurance, the option to save for retirement, and the opportunity to continually build their skills.

“Though they are on assignment with our clients, our associates are our employees and are part of the Elwood family. Obviously, the weather and the long hours are out of our control, but we can give our associates encouragement, support, and an ear to listen,” Timperly says. “Whenever an associate comes to see us, we want to make sure they love what they’re doing and leave satisfied knowing that their hard work is helping them—and their families—improve their quality of life.”

Housing Issues
According to Semerad, housing is also a major factor when staffing, one that can by itself determine whether a candidate moves to the area to pursue work.

“Prices have skyrocketed beyond levels anyone would have expected, and although they are leveling off a little now, it makes bringing people in difficult,” he says. “Workforce housing is also in limited supply and it’s not conducive for family-type living, so that plays a role in people’s decision as well.”

Many of the companies in the Bakken do not have the facilities to house temporary employees; which are reserved for their full-time employees. Even with new construction, the vacancy rates in the oil towns are generally less than one percent, and sky-high rent prices reflect this supply and demand.

“Individuals who come to North Dakota without advance preparation—especially those who just pick up and leave—quickly find themselves priced out of the market and unable to secure housing,” Timperly says. “Elwood encourages job seekers not to move to the area until they have made housing arrangements and provides information sheets with contact information for local apartments, property management companies, and RV parks.”

Through the Years
Things weren’t always so difficult with finding qualified candidates for jobs, but it changed when the oil boom came about. Seeing the opportunity, Elwood Staffing opened its first North Dakota office in Williston in January 2010 to support its oil and gas clients with their workforce needs.

“Having supported these customers in other markets—Texas, Wyoming, Colorado, and others—we knew our remote market service experience, combined with our grassroots and large-scale national recruiting expertise would prove valuable here,” Timperly says. “Even so, that first year did bring its challenges as people’s perception of North Dakota as being a little too far off the beaten path did cause some to question relocation.”

Media coverage of the North Dakota oil boom over the past few years has been the biggest proponent of that perception. Television broadcasts, newspaper articles, reports during the recession of the disproportionate employment rates as compared to the rest of the country, all served to fuel the fire.

“The word got out that work and good wages were to be found in North Dakota. The sheer volume of phone calls, emails, and online applications we receive each day is unprecedented,” Timperly says. “Our focus has shifted from attraction to evaluation—identifying the candidates with the qualities our clients desire and initiating the screening and hiring process.”

Author: Keith Loria
Freelance Writer