One of the many positives about living in a federal republic is that if things are bad where you are, the grass will be greener somewhere. The United States is perhaps the most diverse country in the world – really, it's either the U.S. or Russia – with a myriad of regional cultures fusing into one formidable nation. So, if paper-pushing jobs in the District of Columbia (unemployment rate: 10.4%) are scarce, or manufacturing jobs in Mississippi (also 10.4%) are, a willingness to uproot oneself can pay big dividends.
In 2012, if you want to go where the jobs are, you need two prerequisites: a fondness for open spaces and layered clothing. The states with the ninth- through second-lowest unemployment rates in the country, in ascending order, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are Utah, Wyoming, Minnesota, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Nebraska. Each has a largely business-friendly climate, if not a swimsuit-friendly one. But more to the point, each has a gaping dearth of people available to do what needs to be done.
In Nebraska, not surprisingly, it's agriculture that's responsible for much of the job growth. In South Dakota the catalysts are manufacturing, industrial machinery and equipment. Meanwhile, time zones away from the heartland, New Hampshire's cash cow is construction. Whatever these sectors might lack in glamour, they more than make up for in steadiness and income.
The Friendliest State
But for a truly remarkable employment phenomenon, one must witness the magic that's happening in one of the least populated, least visited states - a state that's an afterthought for most folks on the densely populated edges of the country. It sits thousands of miles from the nearest ocean and hundreds from the nearest skyscraper, but it's at the epicenter of the employment boom. The state with by far the lowest unemployment in the nation is routinely at the top of every positive indicator – test scores, life expectancy, literacy and not to mention wind chill factor.
Only 3.3% of North Dakotans are currently without work. If you're in the Peace Garden State and don't have a job, it's either because you don't want one, or you stopped to answer the BLS survey in the brief period between quitting one job and starting another.
That wasn't a joke. The 3.2% is close to what economists regard as essentially full employment. At that low level, the only unemployment that registers is what's called "frictional" unemployment, which indeed refers to nothing more than people between jobs.
There are barely 10,000 unemployed in the entire state. Some mornings, it seems that you can find that many on a given street corner in Las Vegas (Nevada is on the other end of the spectrum, its 12.6% unemployment rate as big an outlier as North Dakota's.).
From Dickinson to Grand Forks, the "Help Wanted" signs are plentiful, particularly in the western part of the state, overlapping into eastern Montana. There sits a 200,000-square-mile nondescript sheet of rock known as the Bakken formation. It's inhospitable for agriculture, and even ranching on it is something of a chore. However, underneath the Bakken sits billions of barrels of oil. And while the oil is easily accessible, relatively speaking, there are currently too few hands to drill it out of the ground, distill it and transport it.
Even in an economy whose most prominent players are its technologically ascendant stars, the newest of the new, there's something to be said for an industry whose raw materials are hundreds of millions of years old. While oil exploration itself is of course nothing new, petroleum engineers haven't even begun to explore the breadth and depth of the Bakken. Incredibly, its most abundant region wasn't discovered until 2000. Yet it's one of the largest oil fields in the lower 48.
The employers in western North Dakota who are doing most of the hiring contain some celebrated names, and some that are only familiar to people in the oil and gas industry. The former category includes giants with a retail presence, such as Hess and Marathon. The others include overwhelmed up-and-comers that, as the expression goes, struck oil.
This part of the country is populated with boomtowns that originated as modest little railroad stops, and were never equipped to handle such stratospheric growth. Far away from the nation's media centers, in a region that's historically been sparsely populated, North Dakota's engines of job creations have become an economic curiosity. The laws of supply and demand have benefited even the industries only tangentially related to petroleum.
For instance, there's an urban legend of recent derivation that claims that the McDonald's in Williston, North Dakota pays new hires $15 an hour. Except it isn't an urban legend, it's true and verifiable.
Want to play a fun game? Try to find a hotel room in this town with a population of barely 15,000. Or, look for something a little more permanent. Potential renters are placing ads on Craigslist, offering up-front payments of up to $2,000 to any landlord willing to make room for them. Extraordinarily, modest apartments are going for prices you'd expect to see in Manhattan or the Ginza district of Tokyo.
The Bottom Line
So if you're a heavy equipment field service mechanic, as opposed to an overeducated liberal arts graduate who's working on a master's degree while paying off student loans, kudos to you for getting that diesel technician's two-year diploma and making a sound investment in your education. The world, or at least the geographical heart of North America, is your oyster.
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