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Books or Boom? High wages in Oil Patch attract graduates, but colleges still have pull

Photo by John Stennes/ Forum Communications Co. Larimore High School senior Mike Finn has decided to forgo college and instead move to Tioga and work in the Oil Patch. Finn said he intends to go to college in a couple of years.

BISMARCK -- Lisa Douglas was a little shocked when her son told her what he wanted to do after high school graduation.

"But like I always told every single one of my kids, it's their choice in what they want to do," she said.

After her son Mike Finn graduates from Larimore High School today, he won't be headed for college and a dorm room.

Instead, he's going to Tioga, to live with his uncle and work in the Oil Patch.

"It's not that I'm not going to go to college like ever," Finn said. "I'm going to stay out at the rigs for a couple years, get a couple bucks."

With all of the publicity about North Dakota's job openings and high-paying oil jobs, western North Dakota has attracted workers from all over the nation.

The opportunity for bucks -- the average weekly wage for workers in the oil industry is about $1,800, according to Job Service North Dakota -- appeals to some graduates. But several school counselors across the state say college remains the top destination for students, and few have expressed interest in Oil Patch careers right after graduation.

Divide County High School in Crosby, had six students who went to work in the oilfield last year, said school counselor Carrie Lampert. This year, four or five students are looking at oil-related careers, but the others are looking at furthering their education, she said.

"This year, we see a lot of students saying, 'I want out of here,'" Lampert said. "It's getting to be a rat race. The small town isn't here anymore. So they're kind of saying, 'I want out of this northwest region,' which is sad, too, but it's a reality."

Lampert said she isn't against the oil industry. However, she encourages students to get further training -- such as through programs offered at Williston State College -- to help them advance.

"You're going to be able to go in a lot more directions," she said.

Mandan High School senior Bob Mason has an interest in working in the energy sector, but plans to get a degree first. Earlier this spring, he visited Bismarck State College to learn more about its power plant technology program.

His mother, Arylis, said she's always stressed education to her son.

"If the oil's going to stay, it's going to be here when he's out of college," she said.

Terri Court, who works in Fargo North's Career Center, said she's had little inquiry from students about job opportunities in the oilfields.

Farther west in Killdeer, there are a few students each year interested in oil jobs, said vocational counselor Tim Schaible. However, most are interested in four-year colleges, he said.

Schaible encourages students interested in the oilfield to become certified in a trade first.

"If you want to use that trade in the Oil Patch, fine," he said. "If you don't, that's fine, too, but at least you've got a back-up plan."

Job Service North Dakota's website says there are a variety of jobs available in the oil industry. Some don't require any experience, while others may require several years of experience.

Weekly jobs reports show a transition to a more technically-trained oil work force, said Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. This ranges from well site supervisors to welders to semi drivers.

Education can advance workers' skills further, Ness said.

"I would encourage any student to get your math and science education," Ness said. "In this economy and the new economy, math and science still ultimately end up in tremendous career advantages."

For Finn of Larimore, the original plan was to go to the North Dakota State College of Science to be a diesel mechanic. He still hopes to do that in the future but is looking forward to his new journey working for an oil company.

"I'm ready to work, I guess," he said. "I'm in it for the money."

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.