Can North Dakota Save Las Vegas’ Economy?

Recently, through a series of serendipitous events, I ended up sharing a plate of egg rolls at Archie’s Thai in Las Vegas with a young man looking to turn his life around via the Bakken oil fields.  The young man is labeled an “at-risk” young adult and is one of Chad Taylor’s proteges who is at a crossroads in life.  His latest crossroad is a roommate who may have started using drugs again.

Now, the roommate using again is only the start of the downward spiral.  Signs of coming and going at weird hours and sporadic behavioral changes were enough to get the young man’s suspicion perked. However, when his money started missing, it was time to reconsider life’s path. The roommate’s decisions had already started encroaching and disrupting this young man’s path to a life of sobriety and a second chance.

Living in Las Vegas carries its own vein of temptations. Reigning in the impulses is where Chad Taylor and Mentor come into the picture for Vegas’ at-risk youth.  Taylor started his non-profit several years ago after receiving second and third chances from some of the top business players in Las Vegas, including the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh.

“I made some bad, make-quick-money style decisions in my 20′s that landed me in jail,” Taylor said. “After years of being honest with everyone I work with and being accountable with my past, I was given another shot to create a career and a better life for my family.  Now, I am able to couple my second chance with a passion for mentoring young adults who want a future with accountability and drive.”

Mentor is an arm of The Taylor Foundation, a Nevada-based non-profit, dedicated to working with at-risk youth.  Currently Las Vegas has the highest dropout rate in the United States, according to a recent study conducted by America’s Promise Alliance, Alliance for Excellent Education, Civic Enterprises and Everyone Graduates Center. Additionally, CNNMoney ranked Las Vegas as the worst economy among all US cities since 2007 and now the city faces the issue of 20,000 high school graduates annually with no jobs available in Clark County.

“There is a major problem in Las Vegas,” Taylor said, “There are 20,000 kids graduating high school with no jobs for them.  Then there are college students graduating and no jobs for them, only they now have $100K of debt in America’s playground. Odds are certainly not in their favor.”

The issue Taylor is referring to is common knowledge to the locals.  In fact, many parents and counselors are even suggesting North Dakota over a 4-year college or the army until the Las Vegas economy rebounds.

“The recent economic data released by the state shows the economy is down 10% since 2007,” Taylor said.”Virtually every industry went down. There is some new growth starting in certain areas, but we are not even close to replacing what was lost.  The best case scenarios forecast late-2016 for a pre-2007 economy.”

A vertical look at the 90 foot fracking pipes on a drill pad.  Photo by Jason Spiess

Swapping the sun and palm trees for snow and wind has become a legitimate conversation at dinner tables for many young adults in Las Vegas.  And the question becomes quite simple – whether to go to college, go into the military or go to the Bakken.

“Honestly, the conversations are happening with my at-risks kids, at my wife’s hair salon, my daughter’s soccer games and just about anywhere else parents gather,” Taylor said. “North Dakota is in the news so much that it doesn’t take much for someone to throw out North Dakota as an option for a kid’s future.”

Taylor continued, saying a few years ago a Dakota suggestion would have gotten laughs and chuckles, but today, it is taken seriously for a number of reasons. In fact, a few of Taylor’s proteges know people currently working in the oil patch and the reviews have been positive.

“Do you want to go to college for four years, rack up $50-$100K in debt and spend a year or two looking for a job?” Taylor asked. “Or do you want to go out to the oil fields for a couple years, learn a trade, make some cash and, more importantly, save some cash.  Instead of being $50K in debt, jobless, with a college degree, you can have an education and the cash to start a business.”

Andy Peterson, president and CEO of the Greater North Dakota Chamber can see why the 39th state is part of the kitchen table conversations regarding today’s graduates.

“The Bakken is a ripe ground for that kind of activity,” Peterson said. “So if you’re in Las Vegas and you’re graduating from high school or tech school or you have a trade behind you, maybe you don’t have a four year degree,” Peterson said. “North Dakota is the place to be, because you can come here and make $100K easily, $125K is not out of the question.”

Peterson said housing is something that needs to be addressed. However, solutions are more readily available now than ever in the Bakken. According to Peterson, working with the agencies and departments set up to assist with housing can speed up any move to the Bakken and make a transition into the Bakken a reality.

“I think North Dakota is the best place for those kids in Las Vegas right now,” Peterson said. “North Dakota is the land of milk and honey and we can make it rain for those folks.”

Target Logistics founder and CEO Brian Lash talks to Building the Bakken host Jason Spiess at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND.  Photo by Paul Flessland

Brian Lash, CEO and founder of Target Logistics also understands why people in Las Vegas are having these conversations about their youth.

“I think parents are recommending their kids go to the oil patch not so much for the regiment, but the economic gain,” Lash said. “I have friends and friends’ children who have come out here (The Bakken) to work.  Some for my company, some for others. Because there is no other place in America where an 18-year-old kid can make a $100K-a-year without a college education. Pay nothing for rent, pay nothing for food. And after taxes, after vacation and after coming home every six weeks, can bank $50-or-$60-thousand-dollars in a year.”

Lash continued his discussion on impromptu parenting with an anecdotal scenario that symbolizes the bottom line in just about every parent facing this jobless future.

“Imagine you’re 18-years-old and you come here with a five-year-plan,” Lash said. “After five years you are going to have a quarter-of-a-million-dollars in the bank and you are going to go home and buy a Subway franchise and now you have the American dream.  You are your own businessman at age 23 with no debt.”

Lash continued saying the “Army and regimen angle” is a valid one too, and anyone who is clean and looking to stay clean has a real shot at turning their life around.

“If you try to come into our facility after you’ve been drinking, you get locked down,” Lash said. “You make noise after 10pm, you get thrown out. If you try to bring drugs or alcohol into our facility, we notify your employer and you will lose your job and your bed. It’s strict, but it works. Are we stricter than the Army?  I don’t think so, but in a lot of ways we are similar.”

For Lash, noticing the Army comparison within his own company, Target Logistics, is quite easy since one in every four employees are ex-military. Lash added that the brotherhood developed in the oil fields and the military is something that is real and embraced by the workers. Naomi and Ronnie Thomas of Capital Lodge see the brotherhood within the walls of their facilities and note the average roughneck isn’t what they used to be.

“The reputation of the oil workers has changed dramatically, and this is a new age,” Ronnie Thomas said. “The people who are coming up here are skilled or are good people not getting into trouble. Those analogies are old and from the past, this is a new age of oil field workers. These guys work hard, 12-hours a day, seven-days-a-week. They put in the time and effort to support their families and that’s why they are here.”

The days of slinging chains and drinking until they sleep, or pass out, are a thing of the past only to be replaced by curfews, chef-prepared meals, high-tech gadgets and sober workers.


Las Vegas is not the only community at an economic crossroads, according to Cory Bryson, Business Representative Labors 563 for LiUNA.  Bryson oversees LiUNA North Dakota and economically speaking – what happens in Vegas, apparently happens elsewhere too.

“We’ve got quite a few from Las Vegas already,” Bryson said. “We have people from all over, all 50 states I believe.  We’ve even got some  from different countries.”

LIUNA North Dakota knows about diveristy of workers and trades.  As a provider of skilled construction laborers on pipelines, power plants, highway projects and other construction projects in the Bakken oil fields, Bryson is constantly looking for welders, plumbers and other technical tradespeople.

“We have 118 contractors we work with in North Dakota,” Bryson said. “It’s an earn while you learn process. Some of the largest and most complex projects ever undertaken in North Dakota were completed with the help of LIUNA members.  We work hard every day so construction owners like Enbridge, Hess, MDU, Sanford Health, and the North Dakota Department of Transportation can have projects built on time, on budget, and without injuries.”

When asked about drug testing and substance abuse policies at LiUNA, Bryson was quick to answer.

“We drug test, as do 99% of the employers,” Bryson said. “That is an area we take very serious as it falls in personal and public safety.”

Almost acting like a funnel for young adults looking to work out in the Bakken, LiUNA North Dakota can become a turn-key solution for many Bakken hopefuls by providing “workforce solutions, housing, health and retirement benefit programs and a world-class, state-of-the-art, 44,000-square-foot skills and safety training facility”. Bryson added with future projects like the Keystone XL, Sandpiper, and new LNG export terminals, they anticipate staying busy in the Bakken.

A LiUNA 18-Wheeler at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND.  Photo by Jason Spiess

“It’s really the best for everyone,” Bryson said. “If they like North Dakota they can stay and plant roots.  If they move home after a couple years they take that trade with them and their local community will benefit.  They have options, opportunity and income.”


National media personality and Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity recently spoke at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND, about “getting America back to work.”  After his presentation, Hannity was asked about the Las Vegas trend and his view on kids considering bucking tradition of a 4-year degree or the military.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am if I didn’t spend years washing dishes, cooking, waiting tables, busing tables, tending bar, painting homes, hanging wallpaper, laying tiles, framing houses, roofing and doing reconstruction,” Hannity said. “You know what, I know what it is like to have $200 in the bank, for years, this is decades of my life.  People think ‘Oh, Hannity you’re a radio and TV guy you must be rich.’ Well, whatever money I have, it came later in life and the best thing I ever did was get my hands dirty and go to work. It leaves such an impression on you.  If my son wants to go to work and get his hands dirty, I’m all for it.”

Hannity also was quick to point out that living your dream and making money do not always happen simultaneously, so you have to be patient and continue to work hard until it clicks.

National media personality Sean Hannity speaks at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND .  Photo by Paul Flessland

“My first job in radio paid me $19,000-a-year and I moved to Huntsville, Alabama,” Hannity said. “That’s the other thing, I worked my way up in media. Right from the bottom.  For free to $19,000-a-year, $40,000-a-year.  I moved to states where I didn’t know a single soul.  And then I was very blessed and lucky.  I would like to say it is talent, but it’s not.”

Reading between the lines, Hannity basically says you must go where the opportunities are. At one time, people came to Ellis Island to find opportunity. For this generation of young Americans, opportunity is in the oilfields of North Dakota. Hannity’s climb to his personal American Dream is just one example of many who have overcome societal pressures, financial strains and plain old loneliness.  Hearing stories of people overcoming the odds in order to present a path of perseverance in their life is a direction Taylor can get behind.  The most difficult part of Taylor’s work with Mentor is getting these kids believing in themselves so others will have the chance, too.


“We have a saying at Mentor,“ Taylor explained. “It is not our job to lead anyone in any one direction, but to show them what the world has to offer and let them make the decisions for themselves.”

Taylor’s advice couldn’t come at a better time as high school graduates across the country are starting to realize more and more that the promise of a better future isn’t tomorrow, but rather right now. In North Dakota.