Though most of my substitute teaching was at the grade school level and comparatively little at the high school level, when I did get high school it was often towards the end of the year for a variety of reasons. As such, I got a glimpse into what many of the Redstone students’ post-secondary plans were. A number of them were planning to go to college. Others, however, were planning to go to eastern Montana and North Dakota. There’s jobs in them there plains. The New York Times recently published an article about it:

Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing, often working alongside men old enough to be their fathers. Some live at home; others drive back on weekends to eat their mothers’ food, do loads of laundry and go to high school basketball games, still straddling the blurred border between childhood and adulthood.

Just as gold rushes and silver booms once brought opera houses and armies of prospectors to rugged corners of the West, today’s headlong race for oil and gas is reshaping staid communities in the northern Plains, bringing once untold floods of cash and job prospects, but also deep anxieties about crime, growth and a future newly vulnerable to cycles of boom and bust.

Even gas stations are enticing students away from college. Katorina Pippenger, a high school senior in the tiny town of Bainville, Mont., said she makes $24 an hour as a cashier in nearby Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom. Her plan is to work for a few years after she graduates this spring, save up and flee. She likes the look of Denver. “I just want to make money and get out,” she said.

Some people have picked up a sense of concern from the NYT articles, though I think it’s a fairly good write-up without too much coloring one way or the other. (Or, at least, I’d give them the benefit of the doubt if this weren’t an installment of a series of articles poo-pooing the oil boomtowns.)

For those expressing concern, I think this is actually a generally quite positive development. In a time where we are worried about a generation of graduates becoming unemployable, these kids are going to get jobs, work experience, and skills. Might it be better in the long term if they went to college? Well, that depends in good part on who “they” are along with a few other things. To the extent that college degrees are in good part about getting people in front of the employment line, then it might be good for any individual one of them to go to college, but as a group it would be an example of running in place. Those that think that college should be the norm are likely going to disagree.

I honestly don’t know what the appropriate number of kids going to college is. Back when I was living in Deseret, I knew a number of people that I felt should have gone to college but had roadblocks that prevented them from trying. Back when I was in college, I knew a number of people that really shouldn’t have been there. Whether the ideal number is somewhere above or below the number of kids currently attending, I consider it a necessity to have a path for those that really aren’t college material. I think it’s fantastic that they have this sort of opportunity.

And for those that are going to college? More opportunities still (well, in resource exploitation more generally), at least for the right kind of college student. Graduates of the South Dakota School of Mines are outearning graduates of Harvard. Which touches back a little bit on something that doesn’t get enough press: white collar jobs in blue collar fields. One of the reasons that mining engineers are able to demand such a mint is that most people don’t think they are going to college to work in such a field. The same applies to industrial production. Writes The New Republic:

The country’s business schools tended to reflect and reinforce these trends. By the late 1970s, top business schools began admitting much higher-caliber students than they had in previous decades. This might seem like a good thing. The problem is that these students tended to be overachiever types motivated primarily by salary rather than some lifelong ambition to run a steel mill. And there was a lot more money to be made in finance than manufacturing. A recent paper by economists Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef shows that compensation in the finance sector began a sharp, upward trajectory around 1980.

The business schools had their own incentives to channel students into high-paying fields like finance, thanks to the rising importance of school rankings, which heavily weighted starting salaries. The career offices at places like Harvard, Stanford, and Chicago institutionalized the process—for example, by making it easier for Wall Street outfits and consulting firms to recruit on campus. A recent Harvard Business School case study about General Electric shows that the company had so much trouble competing for MBAs that it decided to woo top graduates from non-elite schools rather than settle for elite-school graduates in the bottom half or bottom quarter of their classes.

No surprise then that, over time, the faculty and curriculum at the Harvards and Stanfords of the world began to evolve. “If you look at the distribution of faculty at leading business schools,” says Khurana, “they’re mostly in finance. … Business schools are responsive to changes in the external environment.” Which meant that, even if a student aspired to become a top operations man (or woman) at a big industrial company, the infrastructure to teach him didn’t really exist.

I think this mentality extends beyond “top business schools” and some degree down the chain. My own school and the college within it was more vocational in nature. But I did minor in industrial supervision and my first job out of college was being the IT guy at a fabrication plant (in the industry of resource exploitation, actually). How I got into it was entirely an accident. Of course, there are a number of engineers who specifically go into this sort of thing (and that’s responsible for at least some of the South Dakota Mines statistic). But comparatively little on the business side. My college had a major that was, at the time, commanding really good salaries even for the 90’s. But who was going to go into something that included the word “industrial” in it? They’ve since changed the major’s name in part to reduce the stigma. That such a stigma exists, of course, is interesting in itself.


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6 Responses to Working The Fields

  1. Peter says:

    You probably know more, being closer to the scene, but I’m somewhat skeptical as to whether oilfield jobs are growing on trees, so to speak. Out of curiosity I looked at Craigslist’s North Dakota section and saw few oilfield jobs other than some for truck drivers with CDL’s. What I did see were ads posted by people looking for work in the oilfields (“Just moved to Williston, I’m a very hard worker”).

  2. Kirk says:

    Read about this college in John Konrad’s book “Fire on the Horizon.”

    http://www.sunymaritime.edu/

    “The most unique component of the Maritime experience is the opportunity to travel across the world on the College’s 565-foot Training Ship Empire State VI, while getting hands-on experience in leadership and the maritime industry.”

    “The average starting salary for the undergraduate Class of 2011 was $60,372. SUNY Maritime College graduates enjoy the best value of a public education while earning top average starting salaries in America.”

  3. Peter says:

    Weird location for SUNY Maratime’s campus though … it is literally under a bridge.

  4. trumwill says:

    Peter, you could be right. A lot of what I hear about the trouble finding personnel is more ancillary stuff (convenience stores having to pay people $15 an hour and still having trouble staffing). On the other hand, Craigslist may not be the best place to look for that sort of thing (moving around, one of the things I’ve learned is that in one place, Monster.com is the place to look for work and in another it’s Craigslist and another it’s the local worksource). I also think that if it were transparently so, the NYT would be mentioning all the poor folks who moved out to the hinterlands for work that isn’t there.

    Kirk, that’s interesting about SUNY-Maritime. Thanks for sharing the link. I met a guy who went to the Merchant Marine Academy and seemed to be in a very good place financially for such a young guy.

  5. David Alexander says:

    One of the reasons that mining engineers are able to demand such a mint is that most people don’t think they are going to college to work in such a field.

    I suspect it’s an example of a field where you don’t think that the management would be composed of college educated white collar workers. You’d think that guys running mines would be blue collar guys with seniority, not youngish guys with a de facto specialized engineering and geotech background. Unless you’re exposed to that background, you would presume that it doesn’t exist, and since New York hasn’t had much of a history of large scale heavy industry (but we’re still decent at medicine & petrochemicals), and since the Northeast has deindustrialized, you’re prone to having power brokers who have little experience of being around a factory except as a shell of a building being converted into new housing or as a Superfund site.

  6. trumwill says:

    All quite true, David, and I think that shapes media narratives. Which, of course, come from the sorts of places where this is the case.

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