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Oil boom brings scarcity of workers in small towns

By Sean Murphy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Aug. 13 2012 12:55 p.m. MDT

The drilling is concentrated in sparsely populated areas of western and north-central Oklahoma, where communities have been losing population for years and few have the infrastructure to support more people.

Woodward, with 12,000 residents at last count, is the largest population center in a nine-county area of gently sloping prairies dotted with oil rigs, wind turbines and one-stoplight towns.

At the local Dairy Queen, owner Kenny Vassar is considering scaling back the hours the store is open because he can't hire enough workers to cover all the shifts.

"I never dreamed we'd have to offer a sign-on bonus to work here," said Vassar, who gives employees an extra $200 after three months.

Vassar said his employees traditionally have been high school kids looking for spending money or married women trying to supplement the family income.

"We've got kids that don't have to work anymore because Dad is making $28 an hour in the oil field, and the wives don't have to get out and work," Vassar said. "We've got women out there driving oil trucks for $28 an hour."

Tarin Earnest-Smith worked for more than a decade as an X-ray technician before taking a higher paying job three years ago with a land company that researches and negotiates for mineral rights. She more than doubled her salary.

"I just liked the money because I could buy land and do more things," Earnest-Smith said. "I did quite a bit of traveling because I had that extra money."

Paul McFeeters had two jobs — delivering pizzas and working as a night watchman at a manufacturing facility in Arkansas — when he landed a job with a hydraulic fracturing crew. Even without his wife's salary as a nurse's assistant, the couple's income jumped from $2,000 a month to $4,000.

"My wife and I were barely getting by," said McFeeters, who now works with a Woodward-based crew that helps transition hydraulically fractured wells into production. "Now my wife doesn't have to work anymore."

Carl Harmon was operating a grain elevator when he joined a drilling crew operating across western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

"I doubled my salary doing that," said Harmon, who said he often works 60 to 80 hours a week on the same crew with McFeeters. "That's what makes you money in the oil field is the overtime."

Harmon said there's no shortage of opportunity for people who don't mind hard work and long hours.

"Those people that are looking for jobs everywhere," he said, "they just better figure on moving."

Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy

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