Rural Renaissance

Recruiting for jobs in remote locations like North Dakota's Bakken region isn't easy. But recruiting from the local population can help a company fill open positions in rural areas faster than targeting candidates from big cities.

May 20, 2013

A derrick pumps out oil in the Bakken Oil Field.      Photo Courtesy of Contintental Resources

There’s a misty cluster of lights in northwestern North Dakota that can be seen in pictures of the United States taken from outer space.

Although it looks to be a new metropolis challenging Chicago’s dominance over the Midwestern states, this bright miasmic grouping is really a loose collection of innumerable camps that have popped up around perpetually pumping oil derricks in the Bakken region since the beginning of the North Dakota oil boom in 2008.

That gusher created a big recruiting challenge for oil companies: How do you get people to move to a remote region like North Dakota to staff such a large workforce? How does a company persuade people to move to a location so isolated?

According to experts, the trick when recruiting for off-the-grid work locales is to think local. Matt Grove, principal consultant with Recruiting Toolbox Inc., an advisory firm based in Redmond, Washington, likes to target candidates who grew up in a rural environment when recruiting for a job in a remote area. Appealing to an individual’s nostalgic or romantic notions of living a more pastoral life can make a job more enticing, he said.

“The most important thing is to really think through the psychological aspect to help people understand what their quality of life will be like,” said Grove, who believes remote recruiting will play an essential role in talent acquisition for decades as the country focuses on becoming more energy independent.
“Let’s face it, they aren’t going to drill for oil or build a wind farm in the middle of New York City or Chicago,” he said.

Geologists have known about the abundance of oil and natural gas in North Dakota for decades, but until recently it was too difficult to access because it’s trapped in a large shale formation beneath the surface. Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” changed all that.

Fracking is the process of using high pressure to inject a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into a shale formation to create cracks that will release trapped oil or natural gas.

The process has become controversial in recent years for reasons such as the environmental and health concerns of people living in areas being fracked because of the chemicals used in the process. It has nonetheless proven to be a lucrative practice for oil and natural gas companies — and for the state of North Dakota, whose unemployment rate sits at 3.3 percent, less than half the national rate.

There are an estimated 7 billion barrels of oil and 6.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas under North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana. That vast amount of oil and gas can’t exactly extract itself, so oil companies drilling in the region need a massive workforce.

Oil rig jobs are plentiful, but they aren’t the only positions companies need to fill in the area. Online searches show these oil companies need all types of workers to make their operations run smoothly:  truck drivers, rail workers, engineers, geologists, administrative assistants and human resources officers are all in demand.

Ray Gonzales, vice president of HR at Continental Resources Inc., said his company likes to hire locally for entry-level positions and then promote from within.
According to Gonzales, Oklahoma City-based Continental drilled the first oil well in the Bakken shale and is the largest lease holder in the region. He said only 10 percent of the potential sites have been drilled so far, which means the oil boom in the state is in its infancy, and Continental isn’t leaving anytime soon. As a result, the company has become “totally involved in the community” of the region, Gonzales said, which pays off when it comes to recruiting in the area.

Continental Resources operates 200 rigs in the Bakken region, Gonzales said. It sent geologists and employees based in Oklahoma City who negotiate drilling leases with private-property owners to establish those sites, but most of the people who operate them are contracted employees from around the area. And many of the other 150 safety and environmentally focused positions — usually staffed by engineers — were filled by recruiting students from universities around the broader region such as Montana Tech of the University of Montana, Gonzales said.

The recruiting tactics used by Continental are similar to those of Raytheon Co., an American defense contractor based in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Expanding Overseas
Raytheon is expanding its operations overseas, said Keith Peden, Raytheon’s senior vice president of HR and security. When establishing a new location in a foreign country, the company first sends ex-pats to get the operation off the ground. Then, like Continental, Raytheon looks to the local population to expand its workforce.

Foreign nationals are carefully hired because of the sensitive nature of the work, and gradually those employees are promoted to management positions, Peden said.
One of the challenges of establishing these foreign locations is persuading employees to live abroad, Peden said. Raytheon’s ex-pat assignments typically last only a few years, and such assignments usually lead to accelerated career development, he said. But a great career opportunity isn’t always enough to sway reluctant employees. “We sell the position by telling them, ‘Building a career is a continuum of experiences,’ ” Peden said.

Raytheon’s approach isn’t too different from that of Recruiting Toolbox’s Grove, who specialized in recruiting people to small towns before joining the company. Besides tapping local populations, he makes the case that taking a job in a remote location can be a wise career move. He understands that selling an opportunity in a remote location can be difficult.

“Sometimes you’ve got to convince people to work in places they never dreamed of working,” he said.

Max Mihelich is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email Follow Mihelich on Twitter at @workforcemax.