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.