The Plank

What's With Wyoming's Workers?

Americans are facing a torrent of grim economic news. The Bureau of
Labor Statistics reported Friday, for instance, that national
unemployment
hit 8.1 percent in February--the highest rate in a quarter
century. "We are now falling at a near record rate in the postwar period and
there's been no change in the violent downward trajectory," one economist told
the New York Times.

And yet, not every corner of the country is suffering so mightily.
In December, when the most recent state-by-state unemployment data was released,
Wyoming sat
proudly at number 50 with a rate of merely 3.4 percent. The overall number of
jobs had grown 2.2 percent from the previous December. The next batch of employment numbers is due out this week, and while local economists expect a
contraction, they don't foresee disaster. So what's helping the nation's least populous state--roughly 533,000 people live there--hang tough as everything else melts down? In a word,
energy.

Rob Godby, chair of the economics and finance department at
the University of
Wyoming, says that his
state has the "least diverse economy in the country." Because Wyoming leans so
heavily on coal, natural gas, and oil production, it can take a while for an
economic slump to hit the state, even as it rattles the rest of the country. "We're
kind of at the tail end of the distribution system. We're the provider of raw
materials, not finished goods," says Tom Gallagher, manager of research and planning at the state's Department of
Employment. "Eventually demand is going to slow down and
prices will slip, but people write contracts for drilling that are for a year, and
other contracts for exploration that span a given time period and are not immediately
cancelled."

Until just a few months ago, Wyoming actually had a shortage of workers
to do jobs in the expanding natural resources and mining sector, which was
boosted by skyrocketing energy prices. "It created a boom in the state--I mean
a really big boom," Godby says. "There were openings everywhere." Companies
went looking for workers in states like Michigan,
where jobs had already fallen victim to the recession, and encouraged them to
move to Wyoming. The state was also enjoying a budget surplus thanks to energy
revenues, and it funded projects like school and prison construction that provided new jobs. "Public sector jobs are far
less volatile to circumstances like this," Godby adds, noting that many Wyomingites work for the government--about 24 percent of all those with jobs, according to the Department of Employment. (Although there might be budget cuts in Wyoming next year, they'll likely be less severe than in states that are already floundering economically.)

Since Wyoming's energy sector finally began to dip in late 2008--in December, its jobs were up 7.3 percent from the previous year, but it posted only 0.3 monthly growth--some people have been laid off. But many of these people had only been hired recently from other states (they're often called "first-hired, first-fired"
workers because of the impermanence of their jobs), and some have just moved
back home. "In Wyoming
... if you lose your job, you leave," Godby says, noting that mining and gas field workers' transience isn't unusual, although their
numbers were above the norm during the recent energy boom. "If they leave the
state, that then has a positive impact on the employment number." Gallagher
adds that some non-residents have decided to ride out the storm and look for jobs when summer rolls in. However, because many in this group don't claim permanent
homes in Wyoming--they
often live in trailers, hotels, or group houses--their unemployment might not
register in statistics gathered via household surveys. Still, some laid-off workers have already found other jobs;
many sectors posted growth in December.

Does that mean that
employment-seekers languishing in hard-hit states should pick up and move to Wyoming? Godby isn't so sure, especially if
they're unwilling to go rustic and work in a natural gas field or
coal mine, or at one of the state's recreational sites, like Jackson Hole or
Yellowstone. "Wyoming doesn't have a
metropolitan area over 60,000 people," he says. "It's a rural economy ... and
there are a few jobs in a limited set of areas."

Plus, Dick Cheney lives there.

(Pictured: A coal conveyor belt at the Blacke Butte Mine near Rawlins, Wyoming.)

--Seyward Darby

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