The Shale Boom Brings Opportunity for Women

North Dakota’s labor shortage lights a fire under female wages | “Whatever skill you have, we need it in western North Dakota”

Kasia Klimasinska

Women-owned businesses are on the rise in McKenzie County


Amanda Kieson has learned not to dread the 2:30 a.m. phone call. The 33-year-old mother of two opened Badlands Occupational Testing Services in 2011 to cash in on the boom in western North Dakota, home to the energy-rich Bakken shale formation. Oil and trucking companies hire her Watford City company to screen job applicants and employees for drugs and alcohol. That means one of her six employees is occasionally summoned in the middle of the night to procure a urine sample from a driver who’s been in an accident. “I love my business, which is weird because, you know, with what we actually have to put up with, collecting pee every day,” she says. “We are busy all the time.”

While men dominate North Dakota’s shale-oil industry, women in the region are starting complementary service businesses ranging from oil-well geology to occupational testing to day-care and medical clinics. “There are great opportunities for women,” says Kathy Neset, 57, president of Neset Consulting Service. “Whatever skill you have, we need it in western North Dakota.” Neset and her husband founded the geological services company in 1980 in Tioga, which is in the northwest part of the state. More than one-fifth of its 180 employees are women. Neset regularly gives presentations at elementary and middle schools in the upper Midwest, encouraging girls to pursue careers as geologists, where salaries range from $80,000 to $140,000 a year.

At 3.3 percent, unemployment in North Dakota is the lowest of any state, and less than half the 7.5 percent national rate. Many of the men coming to work in the oil fields are either single or have left their families behind in other parts of the country. That’s led to a worker shortage in service industries and opportunities for the region’s women. “When [the men] just come by themselves, you no longer have a teenager to work at McDonald’s, or a spouse that might be a nurse at the hospital,” says Ward Koeser, mayor of Williston, about an hour from Watford City.

The scarcity is pushing up wages: Salaries for women employed full time in North Dakota jumped 22 percent from 2006 to 2011, to $32,500, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, compared with a 14 percent increase for women’s salaries nationwide. Male employees in the state saw a 17 percent increase over that period, to $45,439. Despite their gains, women in North Dakota still make below the $37,199 national average for their gender.

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

A pair of nurse practitioners heeded that call, opening Anova Family Health Center in Watford City last year. The clinic is so busy it has to turn away as many as 70 patients a day. Founders Anita Pedersen, 40, and Vonnie Johnson, 62, plan to move to a bigger location this summer. “There was a real need,” says Johnson, who previously worked at other clinics in Williston. “Every provider’s office was just overwhelmed.”

Kieson had been working for a testing service in Gillette, Wyo., when she and her husband decided to return to his hometown of Watford City. By the time she moved to the area, business locations were hard to find. She grabbed the last available office space on Main Street — even though she has to put up with the noise from the body shop next door. “We just wanted to catch that market before anyone else did.”

The bottom line Spurred by shortages in service industries, salaries for women in North Dakota are up 22 percent since 2006, outpacing gains for men.


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