Marissa Hall | Shale Plays Media
“Before I came to North Dakota, I was a struggling actor in Hollywood, so to give my family an opportunity for a better life, I came to work as a roustabout.” Billy Joe Brewer called a friend of a friend, who agreed to give him a shot, and he drove from California to the Bakken oil fields.
A job in the oil fields is often a second chance, and the employment ratio of roustabouts in North Dakota is much higher than the national average, drawing people nationwide into the oil and gas industry. Roustabout is the entry-level position in the industry, and those who fill the position are usually valued for strength over skill. Whether working on or offshore, roustabouts are assigned a wide variety of physically demanding tasks and are the bottom of the (oil) barrel in the chain of command. Roustabout was even ranked the worst job in the U.S. in 2011. Yet in 2014, people are still flocking to the oil fields seeking employment. So what is drawing them in?
Brewer came for the opportunity for a stable income, something many roustabouts say is the biggest draw. In North Dakota, the mean wage is about $44,000 each year, or about $21 per hour. While workers in the Bakken shale play tend to be paid the highest in the lower 48 states, the lowest average salary is still over $27,000 a year (about $13 per hour).
In the midst of the oil boom, many of America’s oil fields are always in action, and the number of labor hours required to fulfill industry demands is high. According to Brewer, “overtime is the main source of income in the oilfields.” Standard overtime pay is time and a half, and it isn’t uncommon for employees to log more than the usual 40 hours each week. When Brewer began working in the Bakken in 2013, he jumped right into working six days a week. After a few weeks, he even began working every day for a 5-6 week stretch, including nights.
Not surprising is also the aptitude roustabouts have for the hard work they are expected to do each day. More than a few feel that the hard work they do gives them a rush they wouldn’t get from many other jobs. Brewer described some of the labor intensive work he was expected to do, such as climbing stairs with 250 pound, 20-foot long piece of pipe, as insane, but said his body grew used to it over time and the work became much easier.
While roustabouts are expected to keep the work environment clean, they can’t be afraid to get dirty. Many roustabouts can’t remember a day when they had clean uniforms, and some of the work is grittier than others. Roustabouts are expected to repair leaks in pipes and tubing, dismantle and repair equipment used in the oil fields, clean up spills, dig drainage ditches, and set foundations, to name some of the messier tasks. Whether its grease and oil or the muck from cleaning out saltwater tanks, they’re always covered in something.
Like any career, roustabouts have opportunity for advancement, often moving up after several months of work. For men like Brewer, working in the oil fields allowed him and his family to get on their feet. Now able to work on paying off bills, Brewer and his wife are looking into buying a house to raise their baby girl. “All in all,” he says, “Bakken has been good for me!”