Olivia Varley helps a customer at Varley Mercantile in Point of Rocks, Wyoming. The combination gas station, bar, restaurant and trailer park, which is located off Interstate 80 near the coal-fired Jim Bridger Plant, is frequented by workers of the plant and associated mines. (RJ Pieper)

Four years ago, southwest Wyoming was reeling from energy industry layoffs, anticipating further economic challenges and wondering how to prevent an all-out youth exodus. Today, anxieties remain high, but for very different, and many say better, reasons.

At least five major industrial projects appear imminent, thanks in large part to an influx of private and federal investment driven by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Anticipating major expansion of the region’s bedrock trona mining industry, a pair of carbon dioxide management projects and a $4 billion nuclear power plant backed by Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, local leaders now fret about how to recruit and house enough skilled workers. 

Combined, the projects may require more than 6,000 temporary construction workers over the next five years, according to estimates. Workers are beginning to trickle in, and quality, affordable housing is already proving scarce, said Kayla McDonald of the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition. 

The southwest Wyoming city of Rock Springs, pictured in December 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The average home price in Rock Springs, for example, is about $400,000, McDonald estimated, while a lot of rental properties that were built during past boom times don’t meet quality expectations of today’s skilled transient workforce.

“There’s a lot [of housing] that’s not dependable and in need of updating and remodeling,” McDonald said. “There was a comment made that when it comes to housing there should be a vetting process so that we don’t get somebody who’s just going to come throw them up and leave, but actually build a quality product.”

And though trona and energy project developers will tap into a national traveling workforce with specialized skills for a portion of their construction labor needs, they’re also relying on a major training effort to recruit Wyoming workers and, in particular, soon-to-be-graduates from colleges and high schools around the state.

“We know there are large numbers of employees that are going to be needed and houses that are going to need to be built,” McDonald said. “It’s exciting. It’s also a huge challenge to prepare for. But we’re up for the task.”

Recruiting men, women and students

Though each project timeline is dependent on separate permitting schedules, developers expect much of the major construction will overlap, which means there’s an urgent need for workforce training.

“Business is going to have to step up in a way that we have never stepped up in Wyoming.”

Rita Meyer, CEO Wyoming Energy Futures and former State Auditor

Both industry and local leaders are looking to Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to lead the effort in the region, McDonald said, as well as the University of Wyoming and Department of Workforce Services at the state level. Several of the developers are members of the Southwest Wyoming Manufacturing Partnership, another coordinated recruiting and training effort. Project developers are targeting people already working in Wyoming, as well as students who will enter the workforce in coming years, said Craig Rood of Project West, which plans to construct a new trona mine and soda ash processing facility west of Green River. 

“We are doing a lot to develop employees and get the younger folks in our community interested in these types of projects and these types of jobs,” Rood said during a recent public forum in Green River hosted by the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition.

While Wyoming’s unemployment rate is trending lower than the national average, it’s about on pace with the national average in the southwest corner of the state, according to state figures. (Wyoming Department of Workforce Services)

The unemployment rate in southwest Wyoming ranges from 3.3% to 3.6%, according to the Department of Workforce Services’ August edition of Wyoming Labor Force Trends. In Sweetwater County, that amounts to only 633 people seeking work, McDonald estimated. 

While growing and tapping the local labor pool is preferable, Rood said, developers have no choice but to simultaneously recruit workers from outside the state. “We’re going to have to go out and do external recruiting around the country because we just don’t have the population in Wyoming to support all of these jobs,” Rood said. “Even if everyone stayed and went to work in these jobs, we just don’t have the population.”

The collaborative efforts between project developers, counties and the state must also include recruiting and training more women and people from the Wind River Indian Reservation, said Wyoming Energy Futures CEO Rita Meyer, who spoke on behalf of TerraPower, the developer of the Natrium nuclear power project in Kemmerer.

“We’re going to need every worker,” said Meyer, who served as Wyoming State Auditor from 2007 to 2011 and narrowly lost a 2010 bid for governor. “A lot of single women are out there and they’re an untapped resource for these really good jobs. 

“But they’re going to be looking at housing — affordable housing,” Meyer continued. “And they’re going to be looking at childcare. So business is going to have to step up in a way that we have never stepped up in Wyoming.” 

‘Quality’ of life, housing

Rather than each town and county conducting its own assessment, local officials are looking to the Wyoming Community Development Authority to measure housing needs, McDonald said. The organization plans to publish its latest statewide assessment in December.

Meantime, an April housing report by the Wyoming Business Council found that local zoning restrictions and a lagging investment in public infrastructure are the primary obstacles to expanding affordable housing in the state. 

Bill Gates addresses a crowd of local leaders May 5, 2023, in Kemmerer. He is joined by Chris Levesque, Tara Neider and Mark Werner of TerraPower. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“Besides outright restrictions on housing development,” the report’s authors wrote, “we find that the most common cost driver undermining the housing development has to do with low public investment in needed arterial infrastructure, especially water systems.”

In addition to more rentals and permanent housing, project developers are encouraging businesses to expand RV parks. Other forms of temporary housing, such as man camps — batteries of mobile living units that typically isolate workers from their families and nearby towns — haven’t been fully ruled out. Man camps have a reputation for contributing to crime spikes.

Rood, a longtime resident of Sweetwater County, said permanent housing should be the focus, however, because after construction there will be hundreds of new permanent jobs.

“It’s very complicated,” Rood said. “We haven’t been through this kind of huge growth in Sweetwater County since the 1980s. It’s going to be interesting.”

Businesses and local officials should also keep in mind that “temporary” construction workers today have higher expectations when it comes to quality of life outside of work hours, Meyer said. They’re going to want access to cultural events, workshops at local community colleges and a range of opportunities to participate in the community.

“People think, ‘Well, the construction folks are used to this. They travel around and it’s rough-and-tumble,'” Meyer said. “Well, I’m here to tell you that today, our construction workers want more quality of life than they’ve had in the past.”

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. I think we can thank Biden when the combined RMP increase and the BLM impact kills industry that has kept especially Southwest Wyoming going. wonder how many of you actually live in Southwestern Wyoming. The Trona mines shut down and the few remaining gas and oil are gone what’s going to keep those jobs here. Oh yah, the temporary jobs in Kemmerer, oh yah tourism – but they won’t be able to go to and access those land the BLM shut down. Oh, it must be agriculture? Yah all those ranchers who will lose access to grazing for their animals and possibly their property. It must be all the people who will come to Southwestern Wyoming play on their ATV etc. Oh, that’s right they won’t be able to access the BLM, then it must be the seasonal hunters – oh that right they won’t have access to those roads and lands either! But hey all the lower income and seniors, young families they will have all those jobs from nowhere, right? Kind of like milk comes from the grocery store, gasoline comes from the gas station and electricity is just there.

  2. Way to go Wyoming…just keep on plundering the earth until there’s nothing left to plunder…under your banner of “Growth, Growth, Growth”…right up to the bitter end when you are left with absolutely nothing!

  3. Hmmmmmmm 🤔, down the road, please come to Rawlins, Wyoming and “learn how they are contending for at one time was 4,000 “temporary workers”… Please! Come and pick up a conversation with the “local” residents then please! Take up a conversation with the local businesses and what this belly aching does or “resolved”… Please Come! Better yet ask for a “Town Hall Meeting” and do COME! I truly believe you will see your answers before your eyes and your ears may or may not hear.

    Semper Fi!

  4. As a career construction worker with 55 years experience. Temporary housing and temporary workers were seldom a major problem
    Temporary housing had histically been provided by the developer and the Temporary workforce provided through negotiated project agreements benefiting all parties to a development project.
    Providing for the permanent work force once completed was accomplished through joint collaborations between facility owners, community interests and specific trade organizations.
    I doubt much has changed except that developers and facility owners now want someone else to not only solve the issues but also pay for them!

  5. What I don’t understand is how many have blasted and criticized the BLM RMP mostly because it was going to eliminate jobs. Apparently we have plenty of jobs.