As the owner of Crenshaw Craftsmanship in Lander, Adam Crenshaw, 41, has seen the effects of the changing workforce. He isn’t currently attempting to recruit employees, but said he has conversations weekly with construction colleagues who are struggling to hire. 

Crenshaw believes the labor shortage is the result of many complicated factors and rejects the theory that federal stimulus benefits discourage people from seeking work. 

Construction jobs are now riskier than they were before, he said. “People are thinking, ‘Wait, I’m going to be exposed to unvaccinated people in my space, and going into their space.’ 

“Another factor nobody talks about are the approximately 800,000 people who would have been in the workforce who died from COVID instead,” Crenshaw pointed out.

Supply chain issues, Crenshaw explained, are an additional “crushing” component of the current construction landscape. “Windows that used to take four weeks to arrive take 26 weeks now,” he said. Some commonplace materials are simply unattainable. This scarcity can sometimes leave a project incomplete indefinitely. 

With so many challenging variables, Crenshaw has insubstantial leverage for recruiting employees, he said. He has paid unskilled workers $20 per hour, only to have them stay on for only a week. 

“Would I love to pay $100 per hour?” he asked. “Of course. But then I’d have to charge more and pass the burden on to clients. I’d price myself out of the market.”

Neither the construction industry nor Wyoming are alone in the issue. Experts describe numerous factors — a pandemic, childcare considerations, worker burnout and a large-scale reassessment, among them — contributing to a notable trend across the economy. 

“We went on lockdown because of a deadly disease, which makes you really think about your mortality … You reevaluate your goals and think about the things you want to accomplish before you die.”

Danica Sveda

WyoFile talked to several people who have opted out of the job market, and found a spectrum of personalized reasons contributing to the state’s experience of “the great resignation.” 

Pandemic trends 

Wyoming has seen historically high quit rates during the pandemic, according to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey reports. The Labor Department defines “quits” as voluntary separations initiated by the employee. 

David Bullard, senior economist for the research and planning arm of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, published a Wyoming Labor Force Trends article in August 2021 that gave more definition to the situation. He found a larger number of job openings than unemployed individuals in Wyoming and surrounding states.

As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in 2020, job openings in Wyoming fell from 18,000 in January to 7,000 in June, a rate Bullard described as “precipitous.” Additionally, unemployment rose alarmingly from 13,280 in January to 25,515 in May.

By March 2021, job openings had more than recovered, reaching 19,000. Yet, unemployment stayed at significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels. Conventional economic wisdom holds that when unemployment is low, there are many job openings, and when unemployment is high, there are few job openings. This is known as the “job seekers ratio.”

A backhoe operator prepares to bust up a section of sidewalk during a 2016 construction project at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

To Bullard, the reasons behind this change in the job seekers ratio were not entirely clear. He proposed a mismatch between the skills held by unemployed workers and the skill requirements of job openings; discrepancies among the geographic locations of job seekers and job openings; and policy changes such as additional federal unemployment benefits affecting labor market behavior as potential influences.

Ty Stockton, chief deputy administrator of the Wyoming DWS, said the agency has seen an increase in the number of employers turning to them for assistance in finding workers to replace those they have lost due to the “great resignation.”

“There are undoubtedly many reasons for this,” Stockton said, “difficulty finding child care, deciding to return to school to pursue a more advanced career, simply switching jobs due to higher wages, more flexibility or other factors, and to some extent the child tax credits and other federal payments.” 

Flexibility and balance

In 2020, Danica Sveda, 45, of Casper, had worked for the same employer for 12 years, and held what many of her friends considered an enviable position. 

“Still,” she said, “I walked away from an impressive job to be tortured by middle schoolers.”

When Sveda went into lockdown in response to the pandemic, her life slowed down. When she returned to work after lockdown, the value of her newfound time with her family stuck with her. Her job just wasn’t as satisfying anymore. 

Danica and Alex Sveda reassessed their priorities after lockdown in 2020. (Danica Sveda)

Sveda had a conversation with her husband. She shared her feelings and explained her shifting priorities. “We went on lockdown because of a deadly disease, which makes you really think about your mortality,” Sveda said. “When you’re seeing body bags outside of hospitals, and freezer trucks, that’s another layer to your decisions. You reevaluate your goals and think about the things you want to accomplish before you die.”

With the support of her husband, Sveda left her career to become a substitute teacher. Today, she still contributes financially and has a flexible schedule. 

Sveda had no illusions about the financial situation her family would be in without her job and says they have tightened their belts to adapt, but says her family outweighs other considerations. “I’d rather be broke together,” Sveda said. “I grew up poor, so I’m used to it.”

Worker safety

Vicki Windle, 64, of Casper, quit substitute teaching during the pandemic to reduce her risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Windle is a retired elementary school teacher, and is thankful she chose a career with a pension. “It’s not a full paycheck, but it is a regular income,” Windle said. “It pays my medical insurance, and keeps me afloat, since I don’t feel safe substitute teaching during the pandemic.”

Windle prides herself on being frugal. She bought a house and vehicle she could afford without overextending herself and worked hard to pay off her debts before retiring, she said. Windle said that financial care has made all the difference during the pandemic. 

“Between the antelope gifted to me by hunting friends, and food from my garden, my grocery needs are few,” she said, “and it is astonishing how much one can save by cooking and making coffee at home.”

Wyoming Indian High School math teacher Carrie Jo Calvert stands in her empty classroom in October 2020. Desks have been spaced apart in anticipation of the return of some students. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Windle advises anyone looking for a change to downsize. “We often live lives of excess,” she said. “Challenge yourself to make more from less.”

Windle would love to substitute teach again one day when she feels it is safe for her, and for the at-risk people in her life, to do so. “Children are our greatest hope for the future, and they are fun, interesting people,” Windle said. 

Early retirement  

Robert “Bob” Joseph Green, 67, of Laramie hastened his retirement due to the pandemic. December would have marked Green’s 13th year as a radiologic technologist at Memorial Hospital of Converse County, and he had planned to retire in July of 2024 at age 70.

Green’s workload increased exponentially since the start of the pandemic. “I don’t know how some of the nurses are still dealing with it,” Green said. “I was definitely getting burned out doing six or seven chest CTs in a day.” 

Pre-pandemic, he performed three or four chest CT exams a week at most. “It was just too many harrowing days in a row,” Green said.

Green’s work life has changed in other ways. Not only did many of his patients die from issues related to COVID-19, but half of his department moved on to other things, he said. “When I hired on, it was a good crew, they were good times, and everyone was supportive of one another,” Green said. He also wanted to make sure his own body is cared for, he said. 

Robert Green at Dry Falls in Washington. Green is making the most of his early retirement from a career in healthcare. (Marjorie Daly)

These days, he’s painting his garage, restoring old cars and going scuba diving. “Omicron put a dent in my scuba plans. I wanted to do a European trip, maybe bicycle across the Netherlands. I don’t know when I’ll do that.” 

Green’s retirement funds are sufficient for his needs, he said, plus he’s still qualified to drive the UW bus, if he needs a little money. “Besides,” he said, “give my wife Marjorie a nickel and she’ll squeeze out a dime.”

A good thing?

By November 2021, Wyoming’s unemployment rate had fallen to 3.7%; lower than the national average and roughly equal to what it was before the pandemic. 

According to Bullard, approximately half of the decline in unemployment is due to people dropping out of the labor force entirely, and half is due to people rejoining the labor force.

Are these numbers a good thing? “It depends on who you are,” Bullard said. “If you’re an employer, low unemployment makes it harder to fill positions.”

High quit rates, low unemployment and high job openings create an advantageous scenario for job seekers. For the economy as a whole, Bullard said, it will continue to be a challenging shift in the labor supply curve.

Kevin Knapp has contributed to and was a writer and reporter for a Sheridan County newspaper for several years. Knapp has a background in anthropology, Native American studies and video...

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  1. During the Summer of 1978 I never worked for a company longer than 2-1/2 weeks (& was often the senior guy on the crew). The oil boom was on.

    The Gillette newspaper had an ad for a policeman in the “No experience necessary” column. The only requirement listed was to have your own gun, and holster. I decided to go to work in Wright.

  2. It’s funny how some of the commentors are only focused on Wyoming. This is a nationwide dilemma, not just out your backdoor. You had a really good national economy coming into Covid – almost full employment – with good fundamentals. You have a good economy coming out – just look at the inflation rate. Now some of that is the government pumping too much money into the economy, but the economy in general is pretty good.

    But lets not throw employers under the bus as the sole problem. This is a two fold issue. Sure, you have bad employers out there, we have industries with low wages, but you have bad employees too.

    – employees that do not show up on time,
    – employees that plain just do not show up
    – employees that do not do the job or lack the skills.
    – employees that do not care

    I work with employers willing to invest in their employees, good paying jobs, good flexible hours, but some people flat out do not want to show up and if they do, not work. I know of one professional firm that hired a person, out of their first 20 days the employee missed 8 days of work for no reason? This is just one example of many. It’s not just employers that are the problem, it can be employees as well.

    Part of your labor issue is you have older workers pulling the plug and heading to retirement early because of Covid without the educated workforce to replace them. Younger workers are used to “everybody is a winner” or “everybody gets a medal.” Not all, but more than I am used to seeing in my 30+ years in the workforce. Younger workers want the big house, three car garage and a new pickup at 25 years old. That’s not reality.

    This too will pass, business will adapt to the lack of labor, and shift to more technology. Then we will be complaining there are not enough jobs because employers chose to replace them with technology. And it will be employers faults, not the labor pool that lacks the work ethic, lacks the skill sets necessary to participate in the economy.

    1. Excellent comment Mr. Dickerson and I like that you can see that some issues associated with the economy transcend the person whom is President that are not normally acknowledged in our hyper partisan environment.  I am also in agreement with the lynch pin line in your comment about employees.

      “Younger workers are used to “everybody is a winner” or “everybody gets a medal.”

      Now discussing the causes of the above statement will not be entertained by most people in a polite society, but that is not me.  I was born in 1963 and while I worked for companies from time I was 13 in jobs that included paperboy, typewriter repairman, restaurant management and bartender;  I could also see how society was changing with respect to its view on children.  So much so that I never wanted to have any of them, apparently making me selfish.  

      I really think the shift in thinking relates to the changes in society around the time of my birth, as parents did not need children to work on the farm, so less children were born.  Once fewer children were born, the fitness of each child became paramount and parents began to worry about a smaller number of children, they began to meddle in institutions, like public schools, that eroded standards of education as well as work expectations.   My mother was one of these early adopters as she ensured my brother did not get the spanking he deserved for being a “two-time loser” after getting caught throwing snowballs at departing school buses.

      As the slug of the Baby Boomers is retiring, we can look back on how we elevated children as well as the over promotion of getting a college degree has resulted in a place we are today.  Unfortunately  I see no evidence of that changing, in fact it appears to be getting worse.  Just look at how many parents are meddling  in the operation of public schools, so much so that I would ask Why would anyone want to educate children in today’s society?

      Note: While some will say my mother, a devout christian, is a hero for stopping a spanking, she never meddled in how her children were taught or what books we read.  

  3. Wyoming has the nation’s lowest minimum wage, lowest tipping wage, highest on the job death rate, rampant wage theft, no regulation of business, wildly archaic workers’ compensation system, and right to work laws that devalue laborers. We give tax breaks to industries that bring in cheap unskilled out of state workers instead of hiring local folks. When workers do commit to an industry courted by the state, no one has the workers’ backs when the industry makes “business decisions” that harm the workers. Our laws, policies, and employment practices scream to workers WE DON’T WANT YOU HERE! And we wonder why we don’t have a workforce?

  4. I changed jobs because I was told one thing about my work schedule. I found out I was lied to. I agreed to these hours not the work schedule you actually gave me.

  5. Look in the mirror.

    The state has billions of dollars. It has failed to provide employment training opportunities for residents that are affordable where they live – training employers are looking for. Put some money toward that.

    The state probably has the least attractive minimum wage in the nation and sells its low-wage workforce to outsiders. Who wants to move here knowing they’re up against that? Who wants to stay? Other than for professionals, I haven’t seen Wyoming’s wages rising in any significant way outside of a few growing hot spots in the state.

    Hop on Punch in any small Wyoming town (Jackson excluded). There are Wyoming employers who ‘prefer’ a person with a college education for a job that has a starting wage of $13/hr. Even in Wyoming, $13 isn’t exactly a living wage and certainly too low for a college grad. Rent, health care, transportation, education, utilities, phone service, internet service are not being given away by anyone. Youth leaves the state because of these wages. Older people, too.

    You also have employers who refuse to hire someone without previous experience for all sorts of positions that can be easily learned on the job. Employers bypass the opportunity to hire many great employees with their experience requirements, and the lack of proper training resources for onboarding. It really is amazing how poorly employers help their employees to become successful. Many employers can’t even figure out how to ensure the employee’s happiness. If you have problems hiring, maybe it’s really a problem retaining and training.

    Many employers refuse to hire older workers, young women who might get pregnant, minorities, different-looking people, people with disabilities, people with an unusual work history, over-skilled prospects, etc. Hiring discrimination and pickiness runs deep in Wyoming.

    Employees see how other companies treat their employees. Look on any employment portal with company reviews. Employees read this stuff. Your company sucks. Or the management sucks. Read your reviews! Change!

    Many employers refuse to even acknowledge the receipt of a resume or share the status of an application. Rarely is a thank you sent to those who don’t get a job. And encouraging them to apply again should another opening become available is almost unheard of. Besides being disrespectful, employers loose future prospects by ignoring applicants.

    Those online hiring portals are often data brokers who will sell or give away your employee’s private information to their partners when given the opportunity. Many employees know this, or suspect this. That turns off many. If the only way to apply is through an untrusted 3rd party, you will miss some prospects. Employers should have more than one way for applicants to apply for an opening.

    Employers need to carefully consider the questions they ask of prospective employees. The use of online hiring tests – “there are no right or wrong answers” – are a turn off. Many prospective employees would never take one. 3rd party inquires about previous welfare handouts are seen as invasive questions that are used by employers to get a government subsidy to hire you. Again, some people will look for another employer before considering you. And other questions that seem innocuous to employers will shut down some qualified applicants – past convictions, firings, whatever. Algorithms often kick out these applicants before they are seen by HR departments. Hiring is an art that is lost on too many employers who turn over control to a machine. People are not ones and zeros. And people change.

    And crazy demands for things like 6 references for an entry level job are just, well, crazy. FedEx doesn’t even ask for references for their entry level positions. And ‘professional’ references are easier to get for people who hang out with ‘professionals’. Even ex-cons with no references can be good employees. And how useful are ‘professional’ references for entry-level jobs, other than employment references? How many good references did the guy running the Catholic College in Lander have before being hired, and fired for corruption?

    There are employers who demand that employees pay for pre-employment drug screening. Many don’t have the money, or find it offensive and discriminatory. Perfect way to lose good prospects.

    In places like Jackson where people want to work, it is the lack of proper housing that drives the limited supply of workers. All driven by policies that hamper employee housing development and favor developing housing for tourists and second-home owners who don’t work. Even the state is more likely to develop state land in Jackson for business ventures than housing for employees.

    Blame employers, blame the state. Don’t blame employees. You won’t find enough with that attitude ’cause it hides the real problem.

  6. I am certain the other big factor is the rise of the stock market and housing prices, which have allowed those that invested early to retire early because they hit their number. The big slug of those early retirements are baby boomers with not as many skilled workers following in their footsteps.

    In addition, Wyoming is a place where the elderly retirees (baby boomers) are growing without having a back stop of Generation X to take up the slack. Wyoming is attracting an older, more conservative population whom are just fine with the politics, but are then stunned that no one wants to live among them or work for them. Wyoming’s decline in baby boomer workforce probably did accelerate under Covid as more of the elderly, anti-vaccination crowd volunteered to die instead of live to work another day.

    Wyoming is collecting all the correct data and our elected leadership could clearly articulate these facts, but they are hampered by those that are bankrolling that Wyoming would be better as a conservative theocracy.

    Not accepting Medicaid, banning books, rising home prices without rising wages, a dysfunctional government and just a plain lack of diverse social outlets for those that want to live, but it is perfect environment for those that want to complain about lazy people living off government hand outs. Those beliefs are reinforced everyday without any push back from Wyoming leadership….ah well elections loom and the spineless want another term, so rile up the base and lay the place to waste. Go WYO!

  7. The demographic cliff of baby boomer retirement has converged with the over reactions to Covid and a general feeling of malaise. I left my last 2 positions in disgust, well before the current situation. It seemed as if bosses in California just forgot the basics of fairness and ethical behavior. Now it seems the turkeys have come home to roost. The end of Federal handouts should bring some relief to employers here, but the idiots in DC are already talking about more helicopter money so we will see. I would consider finding a position but it is not a priority and the cost of living here is low enough for a frugal person to get by on less compared to blue states that charge you coming and going so they can play Santa Claus on your dime. We seem to have it better than those other states. There is work if you want it, and a decent safety net if you don’t.

  8. Tell us honestly , Wyoming Big Boss — how’s that Right To Work State dogma working out for you now ? You were so concerned about those parasitic anti-free enterprise meddling Labor Unions muscling in that it never occurred to you the workers themselves might someday become self aware of their own employment prospects, and respond proactively .

    Imagine that … if you can.