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.


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