Imagine this: A place where students can work for a single summer – earning enough to cover the full cost of a full school year and still have enough money to live without holding down a part-time job. And even have some money left over to save.
This isn’t something out of fantasyland — it’s a reality in North Dakota.
New data released last week showed the fewest applications for unemployment benefits since April, in a potential sign less people are being laid-off around the country.
But finding work isn’t an issue for people in parts of North Dakota where an energy boom means more jobs than workers. While that’s good news for the state’s economy as a whole, it creates a unique safety net for college students looking to start careers.
With the employment surplus, students don’t need to settle for low-paying entry-level positions. Instead, students in North Dakota are nearly guaranteed work for a decent-to-high wage until they decide to do something else.
That work might not be in a student’s field of choice, but does mean a solid paycheck when other employment opportunity is less financially lucrative or nonexistent.
“It’s always in the back of my mind if I should go back there or not,” said University of North Dakota senior aviation major Cameron Kostelecky who knows the opportunity well.
Kostelecky spent last summer working an oil rig in western North Dakota where he pulled in more than $26 an hour and made even more working overtime.
The work is physical, potentially dangerous and the hours are long, he said. But now in the middle of his senior year, Kostelecky can pay for his tuition and living expenses and can be “pretty comfortable” for the rest of the school year.
“It was worth it for me because school is expensive,” Kostelecky said.
Going to the oil fields, Kostelecky said he received four job offers within a week and accepted the highest paying position. His job just required a high school diploma and he said experience was preferred but not required.
For many people taking jobs around the energy boom there is a lack of housing, but Kostelecky happened to have family in the area so his housing was covered.
North Dakota’s energy boom is a major driver in the state’s higher education system, according to the President of the University of North Dakota Robert Kelly – who’s institution is on the opposite side of the state from where the boom is located, but where it’s still having a positive impact.
Kelly said the additional revenues generated by the energy boom are being invested in higher education. He said the university is also developing academic programs that serve the energy industry that is responsible for the boom.
“There’s been a great deal of very positive results,” Kelly said.
The economic impact has only been felt within the last few years at the university, but now Kelly said they are “certainly seeing results of the boom.”
Kelly said the growth of the energy industry translates into growth in everything from business to education because more people coming to the state means more needs in all sectors.
“It’s just an opportunity all the way around,” Kelly said.
The university expects the energy boom to be a 20 to 30 year period, so Kelly said they are focusing on long term programs at the university. That includes looking to expand the college of business, possibly the medical school and continued emphasis on programs related to oil and gas.
“It’s a very exciting time for us,” Kelly said.
In the western part of the state it’s even hard to keep some students in the classroom in the face of the high-wage earning opportunities available. Kostelecky knows students who have left school to work full time and Kelly said he suspects there is some challenge to keeping enrollments up at schools in western parts of the state.
Beyond the energy boom, North Dakota turned out to be a place where Jack Eastes likes to be.
Coming to the state after high school for the University of North Dakota’s aviation program, Eastes graduated last August with a business administration degree with a concentration in aviation organization. Now he works as a flight instructor making more money than he could as an entry commercial pilot.
“I’m not about to leave the high paying job to take a pay cut,” Eastes said.
There was additional appeal in the relatively low cost of attending school in North Dakota because Eastes said it’s easy to establish residency and begin paying in-state tuition.
He says there’s also more to North Dakota than the economy – the people are friendly and the way of life is simple, saying the energy boom is just one component of the state’s appeal.
But taking advantage of the economy and good paying job, Eastes said he will work for a year before pursuing a law degree.
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