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WILLISTON, N.D. — When Derek Singleton, 25, heard rumors of oil-boom jobs bubbling up from the ground in North Dakota, he went directly to YouTube.
He wasn't the only one.
As young men from around the country flock here to chase what some are calling a modern-day Gold Rush, YouTube has replaced the local saloon as the go-to source for advice on where to find jobs and how to work outside in -50 degree weather.
Pump jacks dot the morning sky in the Bakken region of North Dakota. (Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Belden)
Oil companies offering the jobs publish their own professional videos, but that’s not what job-hunters are interested in; they’d rather watch homemade videos from guys like Nathan Belden, a 30-year-old trucker who posts videos about finding employment, surviving frigid winters and trucking oil. Belden's attracted thousands of viewers since he began posting on YouTube in 2011.
Belden's production efforts resonate with guys like Singleton, who ended up taking an oil job in Texas after hearing cautionary tales about North Dakota on YouTube.
“I don’t like anybody who tries to sugarcoat stuff,” Singleton said, calling Belden a "No BS kind of dude."
“I like something plain and simple. It is what it is.”
Kyle Crow, a 19-year-old floorhand on a North Dakota rig that's so remotely located it’s only address is a set of GPS coordinates, agrees. He turned to YouTube and Facebook (particularly the popular RigHands page) for advice before making the move from Colorado.
“I think the company videos probably try to sugarcoat everything so you come up here and work,” he said, as he inhaled breakfast at a diner after a 12-hour night shift. “But the amateurs, they're going to give you, for the most part, the true point of view that they've experienced up here.”
Being real is what Belden shoots for.
“I'm not Willy Wonka,” he said one recent afternoon in an oilfield on the outskirts of Williston. “I'm not here to candy coat stuff. I call it like I see it. Anything in my video is solely my opinion. I try to make it as factual as possible.”
One of his videos, entitled “Some facts about working in North Dakota Oil Fields,” has gotten more than 37,000 views. In it, Belden talks about how the winters are cold, the hours are long, and the work is hard. You won’t always like it, but sometimes you will, he says, and the money can be good.
Belden also engages with his viewers; he offers prompt, straight answers to those who reach out to him.
“Does Minot have any work?” one viewer inquired. “I ask because my girlfriend is up there and I'm thinking of going there from Oregon, but need to know if its worth it and whatnot (she's worth it).”
“Yes,” Belden quickly replied, “there is plenty of work.”
He also offers specific advice, like how to get a commercial trucking license.
“Although i maintain that pre-testing is a fabulous way of getting ready for the test, it is not a guarantee that all questions will be presented to you so you MUST READ THE BOOK,” he wrote in the comments section. “Its not that big and you can do it over a couple cups of coffee or a few good shitting sessions.”
Viewers say they appreciate Belden's straight talk, compared to the glossy corporate information published by oil companies.
“Thanks for the video and reply,” wrote one fan. “Because of you and others sharing your experience it shed a whole new light on dealing with these large, nat'l companies.”
“I started the YouTube videos because there were questions that I had that I couldn't find the answers for,” Belden said, “and I figured I couldn't be the only person asking these questions.”
It’s unclear how many viewers Belden and other YouTube creators have convinced to leave behind their lives and try their luck in the oil boom, but for some, the videos are a deciding factor to move to North Dakota, or stay away.
“You actually talked me out of wanting to try it,” one commenter said on one of Belden’s videos. “I need to be close to my wife and 2 boys.. The money sounds good. But it's a hard life.. I don't think I have what it takes to do what you do.”
The oil companies are wary of YouTube creators like Belden. Several oil workers who moved to North Dakota after watching YouTube initially agreed to speak to Fusion, but then backed out of the interviews after their companies threatened to fire them for talking. Inquiries to companies about YouTube advice were ignored or, in some cases, prompted spokesmen to hang up phones.
A network of YouTubers offer oil field life hacks
Tim Creason is another YouTube creator who gives his viewers a rundown on the companies hiring in the Williston area, but warns people not to “jump on the first thing.” He also gives salary ranges, $85,000-$115,000 per year.
Another video with more than 40,000 views walks viewers through the physical hoops that companies make employers pass through: grip tests, range-of-motion measures, lifting technique.
Matt J warns people not to come to North Dakota without a hotel reservation or a place to park a their RV. There are few vacancies. Bring food, he advises, since many of the towns don’t have inexpensive dining options.
A lot of the YouTube advice might seem relatively practical and even obvious, but it didn't exist pre-oil boom. The mere fact that these videos — shot with the dubious production quality of shaky cameras and poor lighting— have racked up thousands of views indicates that they're filling a need.
Belden says he posts his videos to help people.
“In some way, my videos have helped [people] get work out here,” said Belden, whose videos tend to pull in between 40,000 and 60,000 views each. “There's nothing wrong with helping someone out who's trying to do the same thing you're trying to do, you know? I came out here to better my life and there's other people here trying to do the exact same thing.”
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Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.
Geneva Sands is a Washington, D.C.-based producer/editor focused on national affairs and politics. Egg creams, Raleigh and pie are three of her favorite things.