High school grads head straight for jobs in Montana

A cow stands in the snow near Highway 212 east of Crow Agency, Montana. Many teenagers in the state are increasingly bypassing college in favor of high-paying jobs.

Many youth in the state of Montana are taking jobs in the oil industry straight out of high school.

The energy boom unfolding in the northern Plains states, centered in North Dakota, is quickly spilling over into Montana. It's a big reason the U.S. is now forecast to be the world's biggest oil producer within a decade. Not surprisingly, the boom is affecting the economic and educational choices of young people.

Reporter Jack Healy is based out of Denver, and he headed north to the vast plains of eastern Montana for a story in this week's New York Times.

"In the last few years, there's been a real transformation of this rural landscape: new drilling rigs, new companies...and you also have job opportunities for high school kids that were unheard of just a couple years ago," Healy explains.

These jobs are a far cry from low-wage jobs at the local Dairy Queen or McDonald's that were more common a decade back. They involve a lot of secondary work in the oil fields, Healy says -- which means everything from repair work on rigs and wells to making deliveries. Peripheral jobs have popped up as well, like the cashier Healy met who is making $24 an hour at a gas station that serves the industry.

There is some cause for concern, though.

"The worry is that this kind of song has been heard before in parts of the country that have seen these resource booms," Healy points out. In his home state of Colorado, a prior shale and gas boom basically dried up overnight, creating massive unemployment.

He thinks the same issue could arise in Montana.

"You know, it's good now -- but what happens if the price of oil for some reason falls? What happens to these kids in five years if there are suddenly mass layoffs?"

For the time being, though, Healy notes that these young adults are making good money.

About the author

Jeff Horwich is the interim host of Marketplace Morning Report and a sometime-Marketplace reporter.

Many youth in the state of Montana are taking jobs in the oil industry straight out of high school.

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