Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

North Dakota oil boom offers families secure future

Working in the Williston oil fields has helped former Spokane resident Randy Ramsey achieve financial security. (Kathy Plonka)

WILLISTON, N.D. – When the oil boom hit North Dakota, Randy Ramsey traded his professional attire for coveralls and a blue-collar job.

He hasn’t regretted the switch.

“I was a white-collar guy. I did sales. I never pictured myself going to work in the oil fields,” said Randy, 36, a former Spokane resident. “I still have my white shirts and ties in my closet, but I never wear them.” Both he and his wife, Dolly, expect to earn six-figure salaries working in the oil industry this year. They’re saving their money, with the goal of retiring in 10 years.

The couple moved to Williston, N.D., to be near Dolly’s family after Randy was laid off from his job at NorthTown Mall’s Sears store in 2002. Their friends teased them about moving to a small Midwestern town. But the move positioned the couple to benefit from the oil boom.

“This is home,” Randy said last month while giving visitors a driving tour of Williston, the windy prairie city that provides services for western North Dakota’s fast-growing oil industry. “As much as I hate the town, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be, because there’s nowhere else I could do what I’m doing.”

Randy followed in his father-in-law’s footsteps, becoming a wire line engineer in the oil fields. The company he works for provides support for the hydraulic fracturing used to produce oil from the Bakken shale formation and does maintenance on existing wells.

Dolly, 33, works as a safety training coordinator for Nabors Industries Ltd., one of the nation’s largest drilling companies.

Sometimes she complains when her husband comes home reeking of crude oil.

“That’s the smell of money,” he reminds her.

If the couple meet their retirement goal, they’ll be financially secure in their 40s.

Randy Ramsey already has retirement plans. He enjoys high school and college athletics, and he’d like to work as a radio sports broadcaster.

Dolly Ramsey has no immediate plans. “I’ll probably sleep,” she said.

Sleep is in short supply in the Ramsey household. The couple juggle long work hours with the demands of raising their three children, ages 2, 4 and 6. Dolly puts in 50 to 60 hours per week. Randy works a 15-days-on, five-days-off schedule. He can be at a worksite 18 to 20 hours at a time.

When the couple has time off together, they make it family time. Driving two hours to Minot, N.D., to take their kids swimming is a favorite road trip.

The Ramseys bought their house before real estate prices shot up, finding a five-bedroom home for $72,000. Several close friends from Spokane have stayed in the couple’s extra bedroom while they found jobs and places to stay in Williston.

Randy’s older brother, Jim, lived with them for about seven months. Because of Williston’s housing shortage, Jim’s wife, Tammy, and their three sons initially remained behind in Spokane.

“You can’t come here on a whim and fall into a housing situation,” Jim Ramsey said.

After a difficult separation – “Jim is the rock in this family,” Tammy said – the family was reunited last September, when the couple purchased a travel trailer and moved into an RV park near Williston.

As eager as they were to all be together again, “I wasn’t prepared for the move, for the cold,” Tammy Ramsey said. “Every week, something broke.”

When the trailer’s furnace went out, the family relied on space heaters. Some nights, water froze in the dogs’ drinking bowls.

“It’s just hell in a trailer during the winter,” Jim said.

But the sacrifices have paid off for the family. In June, they’ll move into a $214,000 house with four bedrooms. The new home is the first real estate purchase for Jim and Tammy Ramsey. They were renters in Spokane, where Jim ran a construction-related business.

Jim Ramsey, 38, works for the same company his brother does. He expects to earn about $130,000 this year, with overtime. Tammy Ramsey, 39, has a $16-an-hour job as a bank teller.

The couple have a nine-year plan to pay off their debts, including their mortgage. There’s enough money in their budget for some extras, too, Tammy said.

Jim took their sons on a ski trip over spring break. For Christmas, the family got laptop computers.

If North Dakota’s oil boom unexpectedly fizzled, both Randy and Jim Ramsey said they’d travel to other areas to work in the oil industry. In the midst of the economic downturn, the oil fields offer families the opportunity to get ahead and build wealth, they said.

Randy Ramsey gets frequent queries from old friends and acquaintances about North Dakota’s job market.

“I get random messages on Facebook …. Is it really that busy? Is it really that good? Are (living conditions) really that bad?”

His answer: “Yes.”