SIDNEY, Mont. — For most high school seniors, a college degree is the surest path to a decent job and a stable future. But here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.
It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.
"I just figured, the oil field is here and I'd make the money while I could," said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. "I didn't want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much."
Less than a year after proms and homecoming games, teenagers like Mr. Sivertson now wake at 4 a.m. to make the three-hour trek to remote oil rigs. They fish busted machinery out of two-mile-deep hydraulic fracturing wells and repair safety devices that keep the wells from rupturing, often working alongside men old enough to be their fathers. Some live at home; others drive back on weekends to eat their mothers' food, do loads of laundry and go to high school basketball games, still straddling the blurred border between childhood and adulthood.
Just as gold rushes and silver booms once brought opera houses and armies of prospectors to rugged corners of the West, today's headlong race for oil and gas is reshaping staid communities in the northern Plains, bringing once untold floods of cash and job prospects, but also deep anxieties about crime, growth and a future newly vulnerable to cycles of boom and bust.
Even gas stations are enticing students away from college. Katorina Pippenger, a high school senior in the tiny town of Bainville, Mont., said she makes $24 an hour as a cashier in nearby Williston, N.D., the epicenter of the boom. Her plan is to work for a few years after she graduates this spring, save up and flee. She likes the look of Denver. "I just want to make money and get out," she said.
The shift appears to be localized around centers of oil production like Sidney. School counselors in western Montana, far from the boom, said that few of their students were abandoning college for energy jobs. And even here, a majority of graduates are still choosing universities and community colleges.
But school officials in eastern Montana said more and more students were interested in working for at least a year after graduation and getting technical training instead of a four-year degree.
Last year, one-third of the graduating seniors at Sidney High School headed off to work instead of going to college or joining the military, a record percentage. Some found work making deliveries to oil rigs, doing construction and repairing machinery. Others decided to first seek training as welders or diesel mechanics, which pay more than entry-level jobs.
Meanwhile, enrollment at Dawson Community College in Glendive, about an hour from Sidney, has fallen to 225 students from 446 just a few years ago, as fewer local students pursue two-year degrees.
"It's the allure of the money," said Thom Barnhart, a guidance counselor at Sidney High.
As more families arrive from Florida and Michigan and throughout Montana, seeking a new start after bankruptcies and layoffs, schools in places like Sidney are buckling. School enrollment leapt to 863 students from 723 in three years. The district is scrambling to hire good teachers who can get by on a $32,000 yearly salary in a town where apartments can rent for $1,500 a month. Freshmen are sharing lockers, and the district reopened a school that had been shuttered for years.
But every year, hundreds of those new students depart within a few weeks, tugged along by parents heading off to another job in another town.
"It's a revolving door," said Daniel Farr, the district's superintendent.
At the end of a gravel highway in northeastern Montana, graduating seniors in Bainville are asking similar questions about their future. Should they get an education and pursue their interests? Or should they stick close to home and surf a wave of cash and jobs that will only grow as companies begin to build a new industrial rail terminal and worker camps, forever transforming this quiet farm town where residents say the population has doubled since the 2010 census found 300.
Dmetri Ross, 17, said he would join his father and uncle at an outpost of Nabors Industries in western North Dakota, working in a lab running tests on water samples and cement related to drilling.
"I'd be happy to make a career out of it," he said.
Renee Rasmussen, the Bainville school superintendent, said she worried about young people like these if oil prices plunged or the government passed new regulations limiting the fracking techniques that have driven this energy rush. If they go back to school, they could be hurt by the delay. A 2005 federal Department of Education report showed that students who delayed college were more likely to drop out.
School officials said that few teenagers were working directly for energy companies. Instead, they are working with the wide range of support companies that excavate, build and maintain the wells, or, in a race with the dizzying pace of growth, construct the hotels, apartments and camps for employees. Starved for workers, many companies offer $20 an hour to start, plus benefits.
"They've come here looking for dropouts in the past," said Bruce Clausen, the principal of Dawson County High School in Glendive, who said that a few students had gone to work in the oil fields after dropping out. "I told them I appreciate them not coming out here."
Nobody needed to recruit Shay Findlay. One day after he graduated from Sidney High School, he drove into town and started looking for work. He found a job on the first try, doing repair work on drilling pumps.
He is 19 and on his second job now, earning about $40,000 a year and still sleeping in a bedroom in his parents' basement decorated with his high school graduation picture and diploma. He bought a dirt bike and a flat-screen television, and took out a loan on a hulking black Chevy Silverado truck with personalized license plates — FDLSTIX — for his childhood nickname, Fiddlesticks.
His mother, Stacy Gustafson, said she worried about exposing her son to the accidents, alcoholism and violence that haunt oil workers. She is glad he still comes home after each shift. Mr. Findlay said he had no complaints about the job. His family comes from the oil fields, and he said he liked the work and was good at it.
Now, his friends are filtering back to Sidney after their first semesters at college, and their stories of dorm-room dramas and drunken scuffles with campus police officers are like reports from another world. He said he misses them sometimes, but would not trade places with them.
"They're going to have to come back and look for work," he said. "And there's nothing but oil fields over here."