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Bakken U's Purpose

To ensure the Bakken’s workforce remains stable, state leaders have turned to innovative educational outlets to entice workers to stay no matter the oil price.
By Ann Bailey | March 02, 2016

Seasonal and temporary workers from across the globe have flocked to the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota for the past several years. Now, the state’s university system is promoting an initiative that aims to ensure they remain in the region for their entire careers.

The North Dakota University System’s program Bakken U: Energizing through education, is designed to encourage energy workers to attend a North Dakota college or university.

Bakken U Is Born
“It may surprise you that a North Dakota University System campus is likely within an hour’s drive of your well head or shop,” NDUS says through its marketing material to energy-related workers not tied to the region yet. According to NDUS, there is no issue with finding work in North Dakota at the current time. Roughly 35,000 jobs are available, and many are attainable through participation in continued education.

Bismarck State College, Dakota College in Bottineau, Williston State College, Minot State University and Dickinson State University are participating in Bakken U, offering a one-stop shop to explore energy-related programs or other courses available on their campuses or online.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott says that conversations he had last summer with a couple of people who had visited the oil patch and witnessed the emptying out of Bakken oil man camps was the impetus for the Bakken U initiative.

One of those men was Gaylon Baker, Stark County Development Corporation executive vice president.

“Part of our job in economic development is to make sure we have an adequate work force. We pay attention to workforce changes,” Baker said. When Baker witnessed first-hand companies in the Bakken laying off workers in response to declining oil prices, he expressed concern to Hagerott that North Dakota would lose members of its workforce if something wasn’t done to stem the tide of out-migration.

Many of the workers have families, homes and vehicle payments so unless they receive training that will give them skills to pursue other jobs, they likely will leave North Dakota after they are laid off, Baker says.

“In order for them to preserve that lifestyle, to stay here, we need to offer them other support,” he says. Offering the energy industry workers educational opportunities will help them move forward with the next chapter of their lives, whether that is moving up the ladder in their oil industry job or working in another job sector in North Dakota.

Listening to the concerns of Baker and a NDUS staff member who had witnessed the emptying out of man camps convinced Hagerott that the higher education system needed to do something to help the state’s oil field workers pursue post-secondary degrees.

“I felt there was enough anecdotal evidence we needed to do something,” Hagerott says. The first thing the NDUS and the five western North Dakota colleges and universities did was to design Bakken U web sites so they could start getting the word out that there are higher education institutions within an hour’s drive of their job sites, Hagerott says

The next step was to offer scholarships .The first two universities to announce scholarships were available were Dickinson State and Minot State. Williston State College and Bismarck State College soon will offer Bakken U scholarships, Hagerott says.

Education Pays In Multiple Ways
In January, Warren Logan, learned he landed a $5,000 scholarship from DSU. Logan, who works for National Oilwell Varco will use the money to pay for classes he is taking online from his home in Dickinson as he pursues a degree in business administration.

Logan attended college for a short time after graduating from high school in Wyoming but was immature at the time and didn’t have much focus so he quit, he says. He moved to North Dakota from Wyoming several years ago after working in the construction industry. For the past six years, Logan has worked for National Oilwell Varco.

Married and the parent of three young sons, Logan wants to earn a college degree that will help allow him and his family to remain in the community in which they put down roots.

“I definitely love the things that Dickinson has to offer. They have a great recreation center here. They have a program for hockey. The church is great here.” Logan says Meanwhile, his oldest son also attends pre-school in Dickinson.

“There’s a strong sense of community, it’s a faith-based, family based community.  It’s just a great town,” he says.

Logan hopes that his business administration degree will help give him job security with National Oilwell Varco.

“I’d like to retire after 20 or 30 years with a company instead of just moving around and around. I certainly think it’s a company I’d like to grow old with,” Logan says.

And, even if that doesn’t happen, Logan believes that earning a business administration degree is valuable because it will make him more marketable.

“There are so many different industries you can take that into,” he says.

Besides helping pay for his education, the $5,000 Bakken U scholarship he was awarded shows him the importance the state of North Dakota and the energy industry places on Bakken oilfield workers, Logan says.

“Credit to the Petroleum Council and the university system for providing this,” he says. “Certainly they’re saying, ‘Stay here. There are good things here. They’re saying ‘We want you here.’”

Jennifer Hutchins is another Bakken U scholarship winner. Hutchins was awarded one of two $750 scholarship winners from Minot State University.

Hutchins, whose husband is an oil industry worker, is a freshman at MSU earning a nursing degree. Her daughter also is attending college so money is tight, Hutchins says. A co-worker told her about the Bakken U scholarship.

“I immediately went and applied,” Hutchins said. Earning a nursing degree will help give her family job security, she believes. Given low oil prices, her husband’s job future isn’t certain.

“You never how long that will last,” Hutchins says.

An administrative assistant at the MSU Student Health and Development Center, Hutchins wants to continue at her same workplace after she earns her LPN degree.

“I love working at Minot State. It’s a big family,” she says.

John Newcomb, a freshman at Minot State University also hopes to stay in North Dakota after he graduates from college. Newcomb, who also was awarded a $750 Bakken U scholarship, plans to take his general course requirements at MSU, and then transfer to the University of North Dakota and pursue a degree in petroleum engineering.

“I really do like North Dakota,” Newcomb says. “I would like to live here a long time if I could.”

Newcomb, who is working at Minot Aero Center while he is attending college, says the Bakken U scholarship will help him realize his goal of paying for college.

“My parents said they would help me out, but I’ve always wanted to pay for it myself,” he says.

The enthusiasm and gratefulness Logan, Hutchins and Newcomb expressed about the Bakken U scholarships is a benefit that transcends money.

“It seems to be working as a communication device that you value them,” Hagerott says. “To find those people who are really interested in going back to school and continuing their education, we really want to be sure we’re there for them.”

The final goal of Bakken U, Hagerott says, is for the energy industry in North Dakota to offer seamless educational opportunities or as he calls it, “soup to nuts,” for anyone who wants it.

“Someone could eventually work their way up and eventually be a petroleum engineering major at UND. That’s the goal,” Hagerott says.

Author: Ann Bailey
Staff Writer, The Bakken magazine