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Workforce shortages in the oil fields of North Dakota are attracting Ukrainian refugees who’ve fled their homeland due to Russia’s war.
A humanitarian program known as Uniting for Ukraine has brought 16 Ukrainian refugees to North Dakota as part of a pilot program with the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s Bakken Global Recruitment of Oilfield Workers program, while 12 more are scheduled to arrive by mid-August. The program has humanitarian and workforce missions.
When the oil boom began a decade ago in the Bakken oil field, which is primarily located in North Dakota but extends into eastern Montana and Canada, it initially had a workforce that was primarily local but thousands flocked to the area from around the country hoping to fill high-wage jobs as the U.S. economy experienced sluggish growth.
“People came by planes, trains and automobiles, every way possible from everywhere for the opportunity to work,” Council President Ron Ness told the Associated Press. “They were upside down on their mortgage, their life or whatever, and they could reset in North Dakota.”
A downturn in the energy sector, followed by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation combined with a series of economic shocks sent many recently-transplanted workers back to their home states.
Ness told the AP that workforce issues have become “very acute” in the last 10 months, estimating there are roughly 2,500 job openings in an oil field that’s producing roughly 1.1 million barrels of oil per day. He explained that there are so many open jobs, employers tend to not advertise every individual job opening, instead posting once or twice for a block of open positions.
Ness learned about the Uniting for Ukraine initiative, which was created by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in April 2022 less than two months after Russia invaded, through an immigration lawyer who noted that North Dakota could be a good fit for the program given its Ukrainian roots plus a similar climate and agrarian culture.
Sponsors of the program, including company owners, managers and employees help Ukrainians find work, healthcare and affordable housing, in addition to education for their children.
About 160 Ukrainians have arrived in North Dakota as part of the Uniting for Ukraine initiative, most of whom went to the Bismarck area according to State Refugee Coordinator Holly Triska-Dally. She told the AP that applications from potential sponsors in the state have “gone up considerably” in recent months as awareness of the program has grown, but also because Ukrainians who are “working and beginning to thrive” are filing applications to support their families.
Maksym Bunchukov was in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine when Russia’s invasion began, telling the AP it was “terrible” to hear explosions in his homeland. He and his wife sent their adult daughter to Lviv for safety and later joined her with their pets in tow. Now, Bunchukov is in North Dakota working for a road contractor, Baranko Bros. Inc., after prior jobs in mechanics and furniture sales.
“I will try to invite my wife, invite my daughter, invite my cat and invite my dog,” he told the AP a week after his arrival.
Bunchukov and some of the other Ukrainians in the program have worked in Alaska’s seafood industry as well. Due to their past seasonal work in the U.S., many of them already have Social Security numbers and are learning English, according to Brent Sanford, project manager for the Bakken program who is a former lieutenant governor and mayor of oil boomtown Watford City.
The Bakken program has a goal of recruiting 100 workers by the end of 2023 and 400 after one year – although some of those 400 may not be Ukrainians. Ness said the workers will drive, start in shops, build roads, pads, and fences, adding they’ll do “everything from there up to well site operations.”
Starting jobs for workers in the Bakken program typically pay about $20 an hour for more basic roles, although that can rise quickly. They can also leave existing jobs and travel across state lines to participate while they’re in the Uniting for Ukraine program, which offers “humanitarian parole” lasting two years and a potential path beyond that, depending on federal policy.
North Dakota has a history of welcoming immigrants from Ukraine. The fall 1986 edition of “North Dakota History” from the Journal of the Northern Plains noted that several thousand Ukrainians emigrated to the state in the 1890s and early 1900s.
Data from the Census Bureau indicates that communities in western North Dakota have some of the highest percentages of residents of Ukrainian descent.
Recently, the Ukrainian Cultural Institute in Dickinson hosted a lunch for some of the workers with dishes like rice rolls, beet bread, deviled eggs and dumplings called perogies. The Ukrainian Cultural Institute is dedicated to preserving the region’s Ukrainian heritage and has raised over $10,000 for humanitarian aid since the war began.