Of all the people I've met on this trip, Ben Robertson may have adopted the wisest and consequently most successful approach to finding new employment following a job loss. Unemployed in Colorado after mass layoffs from the natural gas fields, Ben began researching jobless statistics state-by-state. He and his wife Lily had never considered living in North Dakota before, but with an unemployment rate running roughly half the national average, Ben concluded: "You have to go where the jobs are."
When market prices for natural gas drop below $5, production slows nationwide. When it hits something like $3.50, as it did last Fall, mass layoffs ensue and natural gas fields (or oil fields, as those in the business often call them) transform into barren wastelands of silenced industrial equipment. Ben's job got the cut in January. His new career began in March.
I met Ben in a Wal-Mart parking lot, where I'd slept in the Prius overnight, as I've grown accustomed to doing lately. Hard-pressed for a compelling story of someone adapting to the economic downturn in a state with only 4.3% unemployment, I sat watching license plates for hours, accosting anyone emerging from an out-of state-registered car.
Ben's Colorado plate wasn't the first I saw. I chased down two other cars displaying Michigan tags, whose occupants were reticent to speak on the record because they didn't feel comfortably secure in their brand new North Dakota jobs. By contrast, once I got Ben talking, he didn't stop for quite awhile. Only afterward did he realize he'd said far too much, so I agreed to give him a pseudonym, leave his current employer unnamed, and not repeat a couple of his juicier life details.
For just over $70,000 a year, Ben used to drive a water truck around natural gas fields near Parachute, Colorado. Now based out of Bismarck, North Dakota, he will earn about $40,000 this year for back-breaking and potentially hazardous work spraying herbicide to kill weeds along train tracks around the country. It's a huge reduction in income for a more strenuous and dangerous effort, but Ben is not the type to dwell long on the negative.
"I'm just fortunate to have a position at all when so many don't," he tells me. "I don't feel comfortable doing some of the things we do because there are health hazards with the chemicals, but you gotta do what you gotta do to survive. It's so disheartening to see people living out on the streets, so we can't complain too much."
Ben's biggest worry at the moment concerns the financing of his son's education. Studying to become an X-ray technician, his boy needs help paying for the third year of college. Ben and Lily had to tell him last week they couldn't co-sign for a student loan. Unfortunately, the Robertsons have some debt marring their credit.
In a typical hard luck turn I've heard far too often recently, the Robertsons could not afford COBRA insurance rates on the income of an unemployment check. I don't understand how it is that major injuries always seem to wait for the health insurance to expire. Whatever malevolent pixies orchestrate these accidents pulled Lily's feet out from under her in the shower. The force of her head hitting the toilet made it explode. The toilet, not her head--very fortunately.
One ride in an expensive taxi with blaring sirens and pulsing lights--followed by a comprehensive noggin examination--added up to a credit report demerit worth $4,000. Even now, Lily's prescription medications cost $700 out of pocket every month, though Ben thinks the health benefits of his new job are about to kick in and relieve that load slightly.
From the time Ben started his new job in March until just a few weeks ago, he and Lily traveled all over the Midwest, living out of motels near anywhere weeds had the nerve to infringe on the exclusive domain of trains. Now the couple has settled into their new North Dakota apartment for the down months when winter spreads nature's own frosty herbicide.
In a few weeks, Lily will start a full-time position manning phones in a customer service call center. Ben squeezes forty working hours into four days, maintaining trucks and equipment at his employer's base of operations. Since the easier work earns less pay than the high season, he was considering Wal-Mart's big black and neon-colored sign advertising help wanted with late night re-stock.
It's not clear how much sleep time a second job would allow, but when I inquire about that he says again: "You gotta do what you gotta do," only this time concluding with "for your kids."
His daughter is a teacher in Florida, just finishing up her Master's in mathematics. His son is halfway to becoming an X-ray technician. Both have chosen career paths Ben feels will guarantee job security and financial stability, and he evinces pride at their accomplishments. If he and Lily can just earn a little more money to help secure a clear trailhead for their son's path, then they can finally relax. "No matter how hard it is, I figure if we can do right by our kids, then we've done right. Period."