Grunke column: Bakken oil fields are a market for goods made here

Over the past few years, many of us have known someone who left the Missoula valley to pursue work in the Bakken oil fields of Eastern Montana and Northwestern North Dakota. Sometimes, those people move there with their families. More often, due to housing shortages and a general lack of infrastructure in the region, they find it is more practical to commute eight hours across the state, work marathon two-week hitches (sleeping in crowded bunkhouses between shifts), return here to their families for a couple of weeks, and then repeat the cycle.

It is a draining lifestyle for even the toughest among us. But for now, for those skilled laborers, the Bakken is where the opportunity is. And by all indications, that opportunity will continue to grow for several years to come.

Difficult as it has been to see families split by the lure of good-paying jobs more than 620 miles away, there is very positive potential for Western Montana in the Eastern Montana boom.

Late last year, Missoula Economic Partnership partnered with Global Development Services, manager of the Montana World Trade Center, to examine the opportunities for Montana companies in the Bakken. We spent time in the region interviewing numerous business owners as well as workers and government officials.

What we found was a marketplace in great need of high-quality goods and services. Right now, companies in the Bakken are scrambling to piece together efficient operations in an area of the country that was previously known, if known at all, for its remoteness. To make up for the inefficiencies of fragmented supply and service chains, companies have had to engage large on-the-ground workforces. That’s why the oil fields have been a kind of black hole in the regional labor market, sucking in anyone who is close and qualified.

But a wide variety of opportunities exist for manufacturers and professional service providers who, from here, can serve the needs of companies there. Our goal is to keep Missoula’s workers in Missoula as they contribute to this industry.

In late April, after assembling and analyzing our research, we traveled with representatives of Global Development Services to Butte, where we presented a daylong seminar titled “Tapping Opportunity in the Bakken” to 75 Montana business leaders. This was the first step in an ongoing effort to help map out prime opportunities for Montana companies.

When you look at an actual road map, Missoula sits on one of the primary transportation arteries that feed the Bakken. Indeed, we believe Missoula lies in a sweet spot: Not so close to the Bakken that a critical mass of skilled workers or businesses will simply be lured away from our community — but close enough to benefit from fast and inexpensive transportation to the area.

Already, local companies are taking notice. Diversified Plastics Inc., a Missoula designer and manufacturer of industrial plastic products, has long supplied wastewater treatment plants and mining operations with precision gears and fittings that are durable and won’t rust from contact with water. Through our work with Global Development Services we are connecting Diversified Plastics and others to the resources that they need to cement relationships in the Bakken.

At the Missoula Economic Partnership we often talk about metaphorical “road maps to success.” If we can help local businesses discover the quickest route to growth, it benefits our overall economy.

By mapping out — in a literal sense — the opportunities in the Bakken and connecting Missoula suppliers with businesses on the far side of the state, we can accelerate success here — and, hopefully, bring some of our displaced skilled laborers back home to their families.


James Grunke is CEO of Missoula Economic Partnership. This column originally appeared in the May 26, 2013 edition of the Missoulian’s Western Montana InBusiness.

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