Robert Peeler of California is working as a mechanic in Williston, N.D., to save his house and his family ranch. Peeler hopes his family can join him in North Dakota this fall. Amy Dalrymple/Forum Communications Co.
WILLISTON, N.D. – Moving to North Dakota was the best thing that ever happened to Robert Peeler.
After losing his job and facing hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, the Red Bluff, Calif., man hoped North Dakota was the route to turning his life around.
He found a good-paying job his first day in Williston and is now on a path to do just that.
“This is the only place where there’s really this much opportunity,” Peeler said.
Stories like Peeler’s are common in western North Dakota, where a recent scan of the Walmart parking lot in Williston showed license plates from 25 states.
It’s difficult to know just how many people have moved to North Dakota in the past year after hearing about the oil boom and the state’s job opportunities. But the North Dakota Department of Commerce provides a glimpse into which states’ residents seem to be most attracted to North Dakota.
In the first six months of this year, the state’s relocation program added nearly 2,700 names into a database of people potentially interested in moving to North Dakota, said Adele Sigl, workforce talent and project coordinator.
Minnesotans topped the list of interested movers (242) followed by Californians (195), Washingtonians (169) and Floridians (159). North Dakota’s relocation program was contacted by someone in every U.S. state and also heard from interested job seekers in Nigeria, the Czech Republic and Jordan this year.
There are now more than 8,000 names in the program’s database.
Sigl said people are grateful to have a place to contact to learn more about moving to North Dakota.
“With working with the program, I have learned the importance of what that voice on the other end of the phone can mean to a person who is in need of a job and relocating to another state they know nothing about,” she said. “I have been blessed and thanked many, many times over.”
One of the most popular questions Sigl gets is how to get a job in the oilfield. Some job seekers want to know if news reports about North Dakota’s booming economy and job openings are actually true.
“They’re just really, ‘Come on. That can’t be happening because look at our state and our economy and what’s going on there,’ ” Sigl said.
She also fields questions that would amuse North Dakotans, like: Do people really work in the winter time?
“They (job seekers) always ask about the weather. ‘What’s the weather like up there?’ I think they think we sit on an iceberg,” Sigl said.
As North Dakota becomes a melting pot of job seekers from around the world looking for opportunity, three men share their stories of what led them here.
California: ‘I get to be a provider again’
A string of bad luck brought Peeler to North Dakota, but now his luck is turning around.
The 40-year-old got laid off from his job as a mechanic for Land Rover after 9½ years.
Then he and his brothers inherited their grandfather’s ranch and Peeler “mortgaged our house to the hilt” to buy 1,160 cows with his brothers.
One cow got hoof and mouth disease, and all of the cows had to be put down, leaving the family with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
Three of Peeler’s brothers are now in the Gulf Coast doing offshore drilling. Peeler came to Williston about six weeks ago to work as a mechanic.
“We’re doing what we have to do,” Peeler said.
With the high demand for mechanics in the Oil Patch, Peeler found a job his first day and turned down three other offers.
The shop where he works has cars lined up waiting weeks to be worked on. Peeler often works into the evening and does work on the side to earn as much money as he can. He is working to start a mobile mechanic business on weekends.
Peeler has a wife, who works as a nurse, three sons and a stepdaughter back in California. He hopes they’ll be able to join him in Williston after he gets settled, and they may even make North Dakota their home.
“This is a great place to raise your kids,” Peeler said.
In the meantime, Peeler is sending most of the money he earns back to his family.
“I get to be a provider again,” Peeler said. “This is the best thing to ever happen to me and my family.”
New Jersey native Brad McHugh moved to Williston, N.D., with his dog, Mister Cooper, to operate White Dog Development Group, a real estate development firm.
New Jersey: ‘I’d regret not trying it’
For East Coast entrepreneur Brad McHugh, the real estate opportunities in North Dakota were too good to ignore.
McHugh, a New Jersey native, has been living in Williston since March with White Dog Development Group, a firm he runs with his friend and business partner.
Work was steady for McHugh on the East Coast, where he still runs a general contracting and development company.
But McHugh, a single 35-year-old, decided he was in a position to take some risks and have an adventure in North Dakota.
“I figured I’d regret not trying it and I’d never regret trying it,” McHugh said.
McHugh did a lot of research before moving to North Dakota and took some scouting trips. But he and his partner discovered they need to be able to adapt to the dynamic conditions.
“Williston changes so aggressively every day that research is very relative,” McHugh said. “It’s really more of get here, live it, figure it out.”
His company initially planned to take older buildings and repurpose them for current needs. They renovated a condemned downtown Williston building and will now lease it to a civil engineering firm for office space with some housing.
Now White Dog is shifting its focus to raw land development. The company is developing 150 acres in McKenzie County about 15 minutes south of Williston for commercial and retail projects.
McHugh said working with people in North Dakota has been refreshing compared to the cutthroat competition he was accustomed to on the East Coast. He is planning to build a house and stay in North Dakota for at least two to three years.
“As long as it’s as fun as it is now,” McHugh said.
John Karel of Stillwater, Minn. is CEO of ABcom and is expanding the business in Williston, N.D.
Minnesota: ‘We have long-term intentions’
As CEO of a communications firm, John Karel is often coined “chief expansion officer.”
The Stillwater, Minn., man leads ABcom, which specializes in installing and designing voice and data cabling and other applied business communications.
Karel has helped start offices in Arizona and Texas and is now launching an operation based in Williston.
“We knew it was booming here,” Karel said.
As new schools, hospitals, retail stores and offices open in the Oil Patch, ABcom will support the data and voice cabling and systems installation and service.
Karel has been working in Williston full time for all of 2012 and he has two other employees in North Dakota. More employees are ready to come once the operation gets established.
ABcom also is developing a technology that will allow oil companies to remotely monitor tanks, instruments and other gauges at well sites over a cell phone line.
Karel said the technology is simpler and more affordable than other remote sensor systems, and it’s a better option than sending an employee to check on a location. He’s meeting with oil companies that are planning to test the new system.
“We think this is a great place. There is a lot of growth,” Karel said. “We have long-term intentions, not just to come in for a month.”