Oil boom hits Glendive college

2011-12-13T00:00:00Z 2014-08-25T16:33:22Z Oil boom hits Glendive collegeStories By MARY PICKETT Photos By CASEY PAGE Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

GLENDIVE — Even Texas native Jim Cargill, president of Dawson Community College, has never seen an oil boom quite like the one exploding into Montana from North Dakota.

Earlier this year, Cargill began noticing the boom’s effect on his college, located less than 100 miles from Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the hectic Bakken oil development.

A one-bedroom apartment in Glendive that used to rent for $400 now goes for $800 to $1,000. Mobile homes rent for $1,000 or more.

Motels and hotels are filled, too, with some oil field crews now living in Glendive because there are no vacancies in Williston and Sidney.

The higher rents have made it difficult for students to find places to live off campus, and for the college to hire staff members.

Two candidates considered for a human relations director position at the college turned down the job after being unable to find housing they could afford on the salary they were being offered.

The job is still vacant.

DCC didn’t have anyone apply for facilities director or diesel mechanic instructor positions.

Because the college doesn’t have a diesel instructor, the school can’t offer its gas and diesel classes that train students to work on automobile and diesel engines, including farm machinery.

More prospective students are asking about those classes because mechanic jobs are in demand around the region.

In the near future, the college will need professors to teach physics and history. Cargill is concerned that the local housing situation will hamper recruitment for those jobs, too.

Students have help with housing because DCC has on-campus, apartment-style residence halls, now filled with 150 students.

The college was able to expand campus housing by putting five students in larger apartments that usually had four students.

Students on scholarship, including athletes, are required to live on campus.

Oil development in the region also is affecting Dawson’s enrollment.

Some local high school graduates who can earn $25 an hour in the oil field are going to work after graduation instead of going to college, Cargill said.

Many plan to go to college some day, but that can backfire. Once they have a truck payment to make, and perhaps a family to support, it can be difficult to finance college later on.

Full dorms and the high cost of off-campus rentals also may discourage the attendance of students who live long distances from Glendive.

According to a report from the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, Dawson’s enrollment dropped 15 percent to 333 students over last year.

Cargill said that figure is misleading and DCC’s enrollment grew much higher than that by semester’s end. The early count doesn’t include as many as 200 students who sign up for one or more classes during the semester.

The oil boom does have an upside for colleges in Eastern Montana.

DCC students trained in skills in high demand in the oil patch are likely to get good jobs in the region.

“It used to be, we were part of a great migration, training young people to leave the state,” Cargill said.

Dawson is expanding some programs and revamping others to address the job market.

Two years ago, the school’s welding program grew from a one-year certificate to a two-year degree, because at the time there weren’t many welding programs in the region.

Students can get a welding job with a certificate, but a two-year degree gives a student more experience and even better job prospects, Cargill said.

The extra math and communication classes that two-year students take prepare them for career advancement in a company or starting their own business.

Brent Nelson, welding program director, would like to increase enrollment from 14 students this semester to 20 students.

To do that, he hopes to add more welding stations to the eight now in the shop.

Students who complete welding programs don’t have any trouble getting a job. Some work in Glendive, Miles City or the oil fields. A few decide they would rather do other work. Students interested in returning to their family ranch or farm also can find seasonal work in welding during the winter.

First-year welding student Ashten Simpson, of Saco, hasn’t decided where he will work after he completes the course. He might work for a shop or start his own business.

The 18-year-old also is a member of DCC’s rodeo team, riding in saddle bronc events.

Dawson welding student Kurtis Gross ultimately wants to move to Alaska.

But he may first work closer to home in the oil fields in Montana or North Dakota.

Originally from Helena, Gross, 22, attended a couple of other welding programs before coming to Glendive.

He’s impressed with the one-on-one time he gets with instructors, the lower cost of attending Dawson and the up-to-date equipment that students work on.

That includes three high-tech welding simulators that enable students to do virtual welding without a single spark.

Dawson’s tuition and fees this year for in-district students are about $3,000, compared with $3,719 at the Montana State University Billings College of Technology and $5,470 for MSUB.

Dawson also is planning to add a component to its engineering technology program to better prepare students to work in the petroleum industry.

Cargill wants Dawson to address other training needs created by the oilfield.

College administrators are talking to an oil field company to do safety training on the Dawson campus this summer. Employees taking the training would live in the dorms, which usually are empty in the summer.

“That could be a very good source of income for us and fill a need,” Cargill said.

Another niche market for Dawson is certifying welders.

Some employers require welders, even experienced ones, to have passed a certification test.

Nelson, a certified welding inspector, can test and certify them.

Addressing the demands of the Bakken can be difficult.

“But it’s a good problem to have, for the most part,” Cargill said.

Dawson is experiencing a fraction of the problems that Williston State College has.

The president of two-year North Dakota college feels like he’s living through a storm.

“We’re at the deep end of the flood,” Raymond Nadolny said.

Nearly the entire staff of his business and student services departments left for better paying oil-related jobs. He’s been able to find replacements for most positions.

Housing is even more scarce and more expensive in Williston than in Glendive.

A two-bedroom home that rented for $500 two years ago now goes for $2,000.

The college, local governments and the school district are working on building a 128-unit apartment complex on campus to provide affordable housing for employees of those entities.

The difficulty in finding affordable housing in Williston has led to the WSC housing office getting calls about the minimum number of credits required to get a dorm room, possibly from oil field workers who are mainly looking for a place to stay and aren’t serious students.

That tactic isn’t practical because campus housing is full and a student who didn’t go to class couldn’t stay more than a semester, Nadolny said.

However, there are students who do work full time in oil-related jobs, take classes and live on campus.

Traditionally, when the economy is good and jobs are plentiful, college enrollments drop. That hasn’t happened in Williston. The college’s enrollment has climbed to 1,000 students for the first time since the last oil boom, three decades ago.

Sprucing up the campus and building a new science building has helped attract students, Nadolny said.

Completing the new building was delayed when three truckloads of building materials couldn’t be moved from Fargo to Williston because of scheduling difficulties in the midst of so much other construction material coming to town, he said.

Despite the problems, the boom has brought in more state money to campus at a time when states in other parts of the country are cutting higher education budgets.

The boom has created opportunities for the school, too.

In 2011, WSC provided workforce training such as safety classes for 9,000 people working for 330 businesses.

Contact Mary Pickett at mpickett@billingsgazette.com or 657-1262.

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