When I went to Williston, North Dakota to cover the oil boom for Business Insider, I knew I'd find people working very hard, in brutal conditions, making a lot of money.
I wasn't disappointed.
High oil prices have transformed Williston from a quiet town of 12,000 to a boomtown of 30,000, as people have come from all over the country in search of high-paying jobs.
In contrast to the rest of the country, jobs are plentiful in Williston.
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But among all the Williston workers, performing all manner of jobs, one position was exalted more than any other — wireline.
Talking to people who were already working, making $80,0000 to $100,000 a year, it was common to hear them taper off the description of their job, and their rate of pay with, "But what I'd really like to get into is wireline."
Wireline operators in the Williston, North Dakota area start at about $120,000 a year and can reasonably expect to make $200,000 annually. I heard one guy say he expected to make $300,000, but $120,000 is the norm.
Williston sits atop the Bakken oil field, 640-square miles of sweet crude whose quality rivals that of Saudi Arabia, and conditions there can be harsh. Workers in all positions put in long hours, but wireline workers sometimes have the privilege of working out of a warm truck filled with computer screens and monitoring equipment.
Terence Burns at Grynberg Petroleum says the job is still demanding. "C rews generally will work straight through until the job is done, regardless of whether it takes eight hours or eight days," he says. " That’s the primary reason why the pay is so good; the overtime can mount up rapidly on a wireline job." (See pictures of Williston here.)
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Crews can work for up to 50 to 60 hours at a time and then "hot-sheet" it into a nearby bunk, just vacated by another operator.
Wireline workers provide a long list of services, most of which rely on one factor: getting sensors, equipment, or explosives deep into a well without having to shut it down.
Burns points out that even though wireline firms often prefer to hire young workers with no experience, to learn their proprietary techniques and work with a "clean slate," there is a price.
"There may be few qualifications required to work in this business," he says, "but the work is demanding and not without risk, the conditions are trying, and the hours are long. There are reasons why it pays as well as it does."
Burns explained that although the North Dakota prairie can seem bucolic, it's incredibly harsh in the dead of winter and the height of summer. (See pictures here.)
"When the pressure’s on to complete or repair a well," he says,"it doesn’t matter if there’s a blizzard raging outside and the well site is one hundred miles away in the middle of nowhere – the wireline truck and crew has to be there."
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It's not easy to get to Williston, and workers can be away from their families for long periods of time, but to many it's a small price to pay.
As one American who drove to Williston from Oregon looking for work told me, "T he world has changed, you just can’t make it with a normal job anymore."
Pay for wireline operators in other areas of the country is less, $60,000 to $65,000 according to Burns, but in Williston the demand is intense and it shows in the pay.
"In the Bakken," Burns says, "if you have a pulse, you can get a job."
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