Bringing the Economy Home

Jobless in Idaho: Leaving Home for the Oilfields

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact Idaho

Allen Brown stopped in Boise on his way from Lewiston to Pocatello for a job interview.

The Idaho Department of Labor estimates there are at least 65,000 people in the state without work.  That doesn’t include thousands more who are underemployed or have stopped looking for a job.  This is the latest story in our “Jobless in Idaho” series, that follows several Idahoans in their search for work.

We introduced you to Allen Brown a few days before Christmas.  He’s a 44-year-old single father who was one of 250 people laid off from the Clearwater Paper sawmill in Lewiston.  We recently caught up with Brown as he passed through Boise on his way to a job interview in Pocatello.

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When Allen Brown lost his job at the sawmill he thought finding a new one wouldn’t be that tough.  He has a background in electronics and is a good 20 years away from retirement.  But when he started applying for jobs and meeting with potential employers he found a lot of low-paying temporary or part time work.

Then, he met with a recruiter for one of the world’s largest oilfield service companies Schlumberger, a company with job openings in North Dakota and Wyoming.

“I kind of had in the back of my mind if things got real bad and there wasn’t much for job offers in the valley, that’d be an option I’d take,” says Brown.

Based on conversations with the recruiter, Brown knew the electronic tech job with Schlumberger would be his.  That’s assuming he’d pass a physical, a drug test and a background check.  This is why he traveled to Pocatello last week.

Now, he’s getting ready to leave his three teenage daughters behind in Lewiston for company safety training in Wyoming.  Then he’ll be assigned to a crew there or in North Dakota.

“It’s almost like looking back to when the Hoover Dam was built,” Brown says.  “Just all the fathers and husbands and everybody who was moving out because there weren’t any jobs anywhere.  Just leaving their families behind.  It seems to be the same thing happening now – going to the oil fields because there are no jobs anywhere.”

The western North Dakota town of Williston is the center of the region’s oil boom.  That’s where U.S. Recruiting President Ron Garrison sends most of the workers he finds.  Garrison says Schlumberger hired 50 of the people he recruited at the Pocatello event last week.  In the last year, Garrison has recruited 400-500 Idahoans to work for Schlumberger out of state.

“I don’t know if it’s a culture of Idaho.  I don’t know if it’s the fact it’s an agricultural community that’s used to hard work,” Garrison says. “I’m not sure what it is, but It’s there.  While we find good workers all over the United States, Idaho just seems to be, in my view a superb place to attract people…to come in and do the work we need.”

Allen Brown isn’t planning to move his family.  Instead, he’ll live in a company man-camp for two weeks at a time, then Schlumberger will fly him home to Lewiston for his week off.

Courtesy Allen Brown

Allen Brown is a single father with three teenage daughters. He lost his mill job in October, 2011.

That means his three girls, twins aged 17 and a 15-year-old will live most of the month without their dad.  They’ll rely on help from nearby family and friends.  This is the part Brown’s having a hard time grappling with.

“You always think you’re preparing your kids to go out in the world, but you’re hoping to do it on your plan, on your time-frame,” Brown says.  “But to have everything just kind of thrown at you, OK this is what it is, and you have to deal with it.”

Brown says what makes this transition worth it is knowing he’ll be able to support his kids and send them to college.  He’s been offered a six-figure salary with full benefits.

“Plus they’re saying after working there 10 years after you retire, all the benefits you get to keep for the rest of your life.  What they’re throwing out there, yes it’s hard work, you’re sacrificing quite a bit, but if you can do it, they are reimbursing you for your time.  They will pay for that,” Brown says.

The Idaho Department of Labor doesn’t track the number of Idahoans leaving the state for work and Census data is still a couple years behind this latest oil boom.  But, Allen Brown knows many of his former colleagues at the mill are doing the same thing, leaving home for a good job.


  • Guest

    Good for you Allen! Getting laid off I imagine was really hard, but you went right back out and found a great job. I imagine being away might seem hard now, but two weeks on, one off will give you a 1/3rd of your time to spend w/ your family…and I’m sure they can see the sacrifice you’re making in the same light.

  • CarrelDawn

    Happy that Allen found something that he can support his family with.
    I recently found a position (after almost two years of unemployment) as a housekeeper at a motel, at half the wage that I had previously made working for the UI for 19.5 years. At least I’m working again; thank goodness my home & vehicle are paid off.

    • Anonymous

      Do you live up in Moscow? We’d love to hear more about your story!

  • I have a hard time appreciating articles like this one, which looks at one lucky man instead of the whole big picture. Yes, there are a lot of jobs to be had here in the oil fields. EVERYBODY is hiring. But at the same time, there is not enough housing to support those workers. Please please please make sure you have a place to stay before you come up here!! There are too many people sleeping in their trucks (in sub-freezing temperatures)! If you can find a home, expect to be paying ~$2500/mo in rent, which is the going rate in Minot right now (2 hours east of Williston, where the crunch is worse and rents are even higher). Local North Dakotans that grew up here can no longer afford to stay here and are moving elsewhere. This means that none of these workers can afford to move their families up to North Dakota with them. Instead, they stuff 5-10 workers in a house to share the rental costs.

    No families also means that there’s nobody to work in the markets, restaurants, offices, etc. Fast food restaurants only operate the drive-thru because they don’t have the staff for the dining room. Shops have odd hours or are only open 2-3 days per week because they can’t find employees. Delivery services and mail are days behind because the oil fields keep poaching all the drivers. The flood houses are sitting stagnant because there are no construction workers to repair them. And it takes a looooong time for new housing to be built because there’s not enough workers to install the gas/electric/sewer/water needed.

    Yes, there’s jobs. But it’s no picnic up here either. Before you come, make sure you have a place to live secured. Be aware that it costs a lot of money to live here. And don’t expect to have the cushy work schedule featured in this article – most workers don’t see their families for months at a time.

    Good luck.

    • Anonymous

      Veronica, thanks for your comments. Allen doesn’t know for sure whether he’ll be working in North Dakota or Wyoming. This series is focusing on the personal stories, and we will be sure to follow Allen’s experience. He will be living in a company man-camp once he gets started. Be sure to check back as we update his story and the movement of Idahoans to the oilfields.

      • Verna Studer

        My son went through the experience similar to Allen. The company does provide housing, even though it is not as great as he was promised. He wanted lots of hours, and he’s getting them. He doesn’t have a family, thank heavens, because even two weeks is a very long time. This companies hours are better than the hours of the company in Colorado, though. Then he was gone six weeks or longer. He then provided his own housing and when on the job would go without food for several days because there was no place in the wilderness to access food! What these men are going through is very similar to the days of the depression. I admire them very much!

    • Idaho Worker

      I wanted to echo what Veronica has mentioned. I’m from Idaho and ventured up to ND for a truck driving job, tons of promises and I found it to be full of scams additionally many drivers I talked to have gone unpaid for months while sleeping in their cars and even tents, as Veronica mentioned in very cold conditions, they’re being leveraged due to being so desperate for a job and employers know how desperate they are.

      What is also frustrating is that media is not covering the flip-side of this boom, there is an underground of greed that is playing out in these towns right now without little to no regard to people who are desperate for work. I wish someone from the media would camp out there and do a story about “the other side”. Good people, long term residents are being tossed out of their homes without any explanation and without much of a notice in order to take in truckers and workers at extremely hight rents. I also want to mention that the promise of high pay is there but the cost of living followed as well, so the math is much different when you arrive.

      I gave up after being tossed around with numerous promises and lies and returned to Idaho and I am working, it doesn’t pay much but I’m home each night and the employer treats me well.

      People are desperate for a job and very willing to do almost anything, but I also believe that employers are taking advantage of people in desperate situations as well. That is a story that should be told.

  • Anonymous

    I am a ” North Dakota widow” …it sucks A LOT !! we do what we have to, but its no picnic :/

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