North Dakota Man Camp Project White Paper Prospectus

My colleagues Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I started to craft a white paper concerning the recent changes in housing policy and practice in the Bakken this month. We’ve been prompted to put together our research in a more formal after conversations with industry folks and municipal administrators in the Bakken region. 

This is the very first draft of a prospectus for our work. More to come!

Diverse Settlements in a Dynamic Economy
Précis for North Dakota Man Camp Project White Paper

Charlie Hailey in his 2009 study of camps argued that camps were a quintessentially “21st century space.” Indeed, images of refugee camps, work force camps, protest camps, and even recreational camp grounds fill the contemporary media with a kind of consistency that belies their temporary status. Against the backdrop of camps as 21st-century space, this paper presents a summary of over 4 years of research in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota focused on the material and social conditions of workforce housing.

Our work in the Bakken documented over 50 workforce housing sites with interviews, photography, and text through multiple visits over our ongoing four year project. As a result, we can discuss and analyze the relationship between the material conditions in workforce housing and the residents’ attitudes toward their life in Bakken, their relationship with various institutions, businesses, and communities that existed before the boom, and their own efforts to forge communities in temporary settlements like crew camps and RV parks.

Short-term workforce housing represents a response to both long-term and recent trends in development of the American West and the global economy. Camps provided temporary shelter for miners, construction crews, and soldiers in the sparsely populated landscape of the 19th century American West. By the late-20th and early 21st century, workforce housing had become a multi-billion dollar a year industry with global logistics companies provided housing to a similar group of people on a global scale. Fueled by the frantic pace of the global economy and the nearly-boundless flow of capital, just-in-time manufacturing, extractive industries, and construction projects have come to rely upon a substantial mobile workforce who lives and works at a significant distance from their homes. In the Bakken, the workforce needs of the oil industry vary with drilling and fracking requiring more labor than production. Likewise, preparing pipelines for waste water and oil both involves significant labor at the time and reduces the need for truck drivers throughout the life of the well.

The existence of a workforce as mobile as the flow of capital and the needs of various industries has put new pressures on the more stable settlements which have come to host the rapid increase (and sometimes rapid decrease) of these fast moving investments in local resources. Traditionally, communities expanded housing stock, infrastructure, and investment to accommodate a growing workforce with some expectation that the economic benefits and new populations were likely to persist for long enough to produce a return on local investments. In the 21st century, a highly mobile workforce, supported by global infrastructure companies, changing notions of home, and the highly integrated character of modern markets, has changed the landscape in which community investment takes place. Conversations with hundreds of workers in the Bakken across a wide range of housing demonstrate that these changes in the economy shape the attitudes of workers who have come to the region. Many of these workers regard their time in North Dakota as temporary, have homes, family, and strong social ties outside the region, and as the economy slowed, began to formulate alternate strategies that took advantage of their mobility.

The voluntary mobility of the Bakken workforce requires new approaches for ensuring that short-term economic development associated with an oil boom becomes sustained economic growth. It is important to distinguish between the various kinds of work force housing in the Bakken and the populations that these workforce housing options serve. Large crew camps provided by global logistics companies or major employers in the oil industry cater to a workforce with high expectations of mobility and highly-specialized skills tied directly to extractive industries. RV parks, which also represent another form of short-term housing catering to another highly mobile population, but often with weaker ties to the oil industry and more generic skill sets ranging from pipeline work, commercial drivers licenses, to service industry commitments. This group is less directly dependent on oil industry work, more likely to include family members, including children, and perhaps more likely to remain in the community after the boom related industry departs. They, however, are also most likely to require new training or to compete with already existing workforce for jobs in the post-doom community.

The fundamental challenge facing North Dakota communities during the most recent Bakken oil boom is how to provide suitable housing for rapidly changing workforce needs. The initial period of the boom witnessed workers camped in public parks, back yards, and the infamous Walmart parking lot. In response, the municipalities William and McKenzie Counties issued temporary conditional use permits (or special use permits) for crew camps and RV parks. This served to ease the initial shock of the boom by providing housing designed specifically to accommodate the short-term needs of the extractive work and the mobile character of the workforce associated with this industry. Housing in these camps ranged from the functional and comfortable in well-appointed crew camps to the ad hoc and informal in the many RV parks across the region. As oil prices declined, the short-term population housed in crew camps also declined as there was less need for specialized oil patch workers during the labor-intensive process of drilling and fracking new wells. At the same time, residents in the patch who had formerly lived in RV parks found it easier to move into more permanent housing made available and more affordable by the increasing in housing and apartment inventories. The key to understanding the trends in housing in the Bakken is to understand that different populations have different housing needs and resources in the dynamic economic and social world of the Bakken

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