What does the presence of all that oil mean for the average worker in North Dakota, compared to the worker doing the very same job down here in South Dakota?

A big chunk of extra pay in some occupations; and nothing at all in others.

Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data from its Occupational Employment Statistics office shows that in May 2011, the most recent date for which its most detailed data are available, North Dakota paid an annual mean wage of $38,870, compared to $35,390 in South Dakota.

But North Dakota doesn’t lead in every category, and in some categories there isn’t even enough information to make a comparison – including some jobs that are highly in demand in the oil patch.

“Rotary drill operators, oil and gas, they’re making $66,000 in North Dakota. We don’t even have an estimate for them in South Dakota,” says economist Ben Cover of the Occupational Employment Statistics office. “One explanation may be that there just aren’t that many of them in South Dakota.”

Similarly, “petroleum engineer” and “chemical engineer” are jobs that earn $176,910 and $109,060, respectively, in North Dakota, but there aren’t even data for those jobs in South Dakota – an indication of what isn’t going on in the South Dakota economy.

Though some South Dakotans hope that oil reserves may one day be found beneath South Dakota, so far the most serious effect that oil has on the South Dakota economy might be the unseen tug, like gravity, that North Dakota’s oil patch exerts on wages. Conventional wisdom says that’s what’s driving North Dakota wages higher even in fields not directly related to oil production as companies compete for labor; and it’s at least a factor that employers in neighboring states such as South Dakota are taking into consideration.

Brian Minish, one of the board members for South Dakota Pulse Processors, a start-up company that wants to build a processing plant at Harrold, S.D., said the greater ease in attracting labor is one good reason to place the pulse plant in South Dakota rather than North Dakota.

“It would definitely be a higher wage rate if we were up there competing with the oil companies,” Minish said.

Minish is right. Data from the Occupational Employment Statistics office showed North Dakota firms were paying graders and sorters of agricultural products about $29,330 a year, or an hourly wage of just over $14, compared to $24,940 in South Dakota. Yet South Dakota Pulse Processors is already anticipating paying a similar wage because some central South Dakota ag processors already pay in that same neighborhood.

Agricultural equipment operators also do better in North Dakota – $30,550 compared to $28,070 south of the border. Farmworkers who work with crops, nurseries or greenhouses earn $23,960 in North Dakota, compared to $21,860 in South Dakota. However, the data show that South Dakota farm workers who deal with farm, ranch or aquaculture animals make more in South Dakota – $25,270 compared to $20,190.

In the construction and extraction fields, the wage for all the jobs across the board is about $10,000 higher in North Dakota. Electricians earn $48,210 in North Dakota compared to $42,690 in South Dakota; carpenters make $35,060 in North Dakota and $31,520 in South Dakota; plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters earn $49,180 in North Dakota and $38,440 in South Dakota.

But the mean annual wage for lawyers is actually higher in South Dakota – $95,180 compared to $89,100. Chief executives, similarly, do better in South Dakota – $142,080 compared to $136,400. Commercial pilots land $58,430 in South Dakota, compared to $52,790 in North Dakota.

Heavy truck and tractor-trailer truck drivers earn $43,300 in North Dakota, compared to $35,770 in South Dakota; industrial truck and tractor operators similarly grind out a better wage in North Dakota, $38,940 compared to $30,200.

Elementary school teachers, not including special education, do better in North Dakota – $44,270 compared to $39,150; secondary teachers likewise earn more in North Dakota, $42,630 to $39,680.

Loan officers earn $58,480 in North Dakota compared to $55,040 in South Dakota. But personal financial advisers earn more in South Dakota, $62,960 to $57,090, as do tax preparers, $34,120 to $27,310.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics office will issue new numbers in early 2013.

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