Southwest Wyoming has some of the highest unemployment rates but businesses still experience worker shortages
Nationwide there is a worker shortage that has become more significant as the pandemic draws on, and it is prevalent in southwest Wyoming where the energy, manual labor and tourism industries play a unique role.
Southwest Wyoming encompasses Sweetwater, Uinta, Lincoln and Sublette counties — three of which are in the top five highest unemployment rates in the state, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services data for October 2021.
The definition of unemployed is an individual who is actively looking for work. So if people are searching for jobs, why are there 'Help Wanted' signs posted on business doors all around the region?
"Some people are calling it the perfect storm," said David Bassett, center manager of the Rock Springs, Evanston and Kemmerer Wyoming Workforce Service centers.
He said a lot of this has been a long time coming — baby boomers are retiring and with negative population growth in three of the four southwest counties — there are fewer people to fill jobs.
"In the Sweetwater County area, I would say we have over 1,000 job openings. And trying to find a qualified workforce is a challenge," Bassett said.
Also, many people were initially laid off at the start of the pandemic, especially in the oil and coal industries. David Bullard, a senior economist with Workforce Services, said some people might not be ready to go back to work yet.
"I think during the pandemic there were lots of different reasons for people to take some time off from work or from the labor force," he said. "Lot's of unusual things going on during the pandemic."
Josh Adams owns and operates Adams Concrete Inc. in Sublette County. It is clear to him, there is a worker shortage.
"So, in the concrete world, it's always been tough to get people that want to do this work. It's hard work," he said. "But the last year and a half has been worse."
Adams' top employee passed away due to COVID. He had been with the company for 20 years and helped run the crews in the field while Adams handled the business deals. So now, Adams is doing both with the help of eight employees. He said he would typically like to have 12 to 16.
Most of his work is residential. Adams said the demand for concrete is incredibly high right now, but because of the lack of workers, he is turning customers down.
"People who want us to do the work get pretty frustrated because it gets to the point that I unfortunately just quit calling people back," Adams said. "Because you can only say no so many times."
Adams said he thinks there is a lack of work ethic in the younger generation, but he also thinks the federal unemployment benefits have not helped.
"All the people who've sent applications in have been just looking to keep their unemployment," he said. "A lot of them won't even return my phone call when I try to call them."
But federal unemployment benefits supported by the COVID-era CARES Act expired back in September.
Corrinne Evans lives in Rock Springs and was laid off from her job as a convenience store clerk in June. She said she worried about her exposure to COVID as she was around people all day, adding that her job did not take the pandemic as seriously as her.
"I got my last write up and I was so fed up being there. I was so tired. And I kept on getting sick," she said.
Evans' unemployment benefits have now expired. She said she is searching for any kind of job, but the problem is she had a major leg injury this fall.
"They're not willing to hire me," Evans said. "As soon as they hear that I hurt myself, they're out."
It is worth noting that not all businesses are experiencing worker shortages in southwest Wyoming. Lakeside Lodge and Restaurant in Sublette County actually had its best summer ever with the spike in Wyoming tourism.
"As far as the business and progression of the business, [the pandemic] probably actually benefited our business more than anything, to be honest," said owner Audrey Odermann.
She said she would have liked more workers in the kitchen, as the restaurant could have been open more days. But, Odermann said in the grand scheme of things it was not a big deal.
So, as for when the worker shortage might come to an end? Well, it might be a while. David Bullard with Wyoming Workforce Services said when the pandemic ends, the labor force issues will resolve.