Women cash in on Dakota oil service needs to sustain boom

Amanda Kieson gets calls at 2:30 a.m. to collect urine samples from workers involved in accidents in western North Dakota’s oil industry. The 33-year-old mother of two says she opened her testing service two years ago to get a part of the economic bonanza engulfing the region.

“I love my business, which is weird because, you know, with what we actually have to put up with,” Kieson, the owner of Badlands Occupational Testing Services, said in a phone interview. The company in Watford City has grown to six employees and 24-hour service from demand for post-accident reports and pre-employment drug screening. “We are busy all the time.”

While men dominate the manual-labor jobs on the rigs, women are exercising entrepreneurial zeal in opening services ranging from oil well geology to occupational testing to day care and medical clinics in western North Dakota. Local authorities and company executives say the women — and the businesses they’re creating — are needed to sustain the economic boost.

“There are great opportunities for women,” Kathy Neset, 57, the president of Neset Consulting Service Inc., said in an interview. “Whatever skill you have, we need it in western North Dakota.”

Neset started the company, which provides geological services to oil companies, in 1980 with her husband in Tioga, 580 miles northwest of Minneapolis and 95 miles from Watford City. It now employs 180 people.

Geologist Careers

She often gives presentations at elementary and middle schools in the upper Midwest, encouraging girls to pursue careers as geologists to land jobs paying $80,000 to $140,000 a year. More than a fifth of her employees are women, cutting rock samples and detecting natural gas and oil, she said.

Outreach like Neset’s is part of a long-term effort to solve North Dakota’s staffing challenges. The state’s 3.3 percent unemployment rate in February is the lowest in the country and compares with 7.6 percent nationally in March.

The worker shortage is particularly acute in service industries dominated by women, such as health care, local authorities say.

“People will come here to work for the oil companies, and they will make good money, but when they just come by themself, you no longer have a teenager to work at McDonald’s, or a spouse that might be a nurse at the hospital,” said Ward Koeser, mayor of Williston, about an hour from Watford City and also in the heart of the oil boom, in an interview. “So the service sector is what’s really suffering right now.”

Childcare Lacking

A lack of childcare centers prevents some women from working. Mary Krowczyk moved back to Williston in July, 2011, to be closer to her family. While she found a job at the local branch of American State Bank and Trust Co. the first day she started looking, she quit recently to stay at home and care for her eight-month-old daughter.

“The decision was made based on a few issues, but difficulties with day care definitely played an enormous role,” Krowczyk said in an e-mail.

Other women opt out of the job market because their husbands earn enough money in the oil business to sustain the family. The average annual salary in North Dakota’s mining industry was $94,484 in 2012, while nurse practitioners, a female-dominated occupation, earned $61,970, according to the North Dakota Workforce Intelligence Network, a state-run website.

While women’s wages in North Dakota grew faster than men’s, they’re still below the national average for women, and below the state average for men.

Women’s Salaries

Salaries for women employed full time in North Dakota jumped 22 percent to $32,500 in 2011 from 2006, according to Census data. That compares with a 14 percent increase to $37,199 for women’s salaries nationwide. Male employees in the state experienced a 17 percent increase over the same period, to $45,439.

All six employees of the Anova Family Health Center Inc. are part-time, said Anita Pedersen, 40, who opened the clinic in Watford City last year with Vonnie Johnson, 62. Pedersen said it’s hard to find full-time workers because the hefty pay of their husbands means women don’t need to put in long hours.

The clinic is so busy that the nurse practitioners have had to turn away as many as 70 patients in a day. Even as she’s approaching retirement age, Johnson said she has no desire to stop working because her services are in such demand.

Significant Perk

Tessa Moberg, 28, doesn’t have trouble recruiting staff because employment at her Wiggles and Giggles Inc. childcare center comes with a significant perk — staff can bring their children into the daycare, the only non-home-based one in Watford City.

“The only kids I would take right now are employee kids,” said Moberg, who runs the 55-children center. “So if they work here, they get to bring their kids plus they get a salary on top of it.”

The percentage of women in the labor force in North Dakota in 2011 grew to 80.5, compared with 79.3 percent in 2005, an increase of 14,442. The unemployment rate for women dropped to 2.9 percent in 2011 from 3.6 percent in 2005. For men, the rate fell to 2.6 percent from 3.5 percent in the same period.

Western North Dakota oil drilling is expected to last as long as 20 years and help the U.S. overtake Saudi Arabia as top producer in the next decade, according to the state. Local authorities want more women like Kieson and Moberg, who are willing to open companies and provide services to the growing population, help sustain the economy and improve the standard of living.

Women Needed

“We need women in this area to start businesses,” said Jessie Veeder Scofield, special projects coordinator for McKenzie County, which includes Watford City. “It’s not Minneapolis, and it’s not a Chicago or a Grand Forks, or even a Fargo. It’s still a small town that is going through a lot of changes.”

What some women might see as an obstacle — few coffee shops, retail stores or pizza places — others should see as an opportunity and a reason to come and fill the gaps, Veeder Scofield said.

Originally from the area, Veeder Scofield left for Grand Forks to study at the University of North Dakota, then lived in Montana with her husband until his career with Marathon Oil Corp. (MRO) enabled them to return.

“When we moved back, I was a little nervous that I wouldn’t find anything to do,” Veeder Scofield said. “I was so completely wrong.”
Besides working for the county, she gives concerts promoting her folk music albums and helps run her family’s ranch. Her latest album, “Nothing’s Forever,” includes a song “Boomtown” about changing lives in Watford City.

First-Hand Experience

Kieson knows first-hand the opportunities — and challenges — of starting a business in the bustling town. She’d worked for a testing service in Gillette, Wyoming, when she and her husband discussed moving back to his hometown of Watford City. She left her husband and children in Wyoming for the first few months while starting the company.

By the time she moved to the area, business locations were hard to find. She grabbed the last available space on Main Street — an office once part of a body shop, even though that meant hearing trucks getting welded next door.

After her family moved to the area, she did all the testing. She then got her husband and mother-in-law certified and won enough clients and revenue to hire staff.

Kieson says she is making more money than in Wyoming while enjoying a more flexible schedule. She also thinks her service is important for the safety of the community. “We just knew that there was a need for it,” she said. “We just wanted to catch that market before anyone else did.”