Jobs trail pre-COVID levels

By: 
Victoria Eavis with the Casper Star-Tribune, from the Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — Wyoming’s total employment still lags pre-COVID levels as some industries rebound quicker than others. 

According to a report from the state’s Economic Analysis Division, the leisure and hospitality sector, retail trade as well as the professional and business services sector have already rebounded beyond pre-COVID levels, but the mining industry dragged down the improvement rates because of a severe job loss of roughly 5,600 or -26.9% since 2019. 

Overall, the state’s total employment still lags by roughly 10,000 jobs or 3.5% compared to 2019. 

The year-by-year comparison of 2020 to 2021 tells a different story. The final quarter of 2021 added 7,000, or 2.6% compared to 2020, payroll jobs in Wyoming, but many open positions remain. 

The leisure and hospitality sector — meaning restaurant and lodging — accounted for nearly half of the jobs added at 3,100 positions. 

These numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, however. Wyoming saw a 2.6% increase in the fourth quarter only because that ratio reflects a comparison to 2020, which suffered dramatic job cuts due to the pandemic. 

“The year over year comparison may overstate the strength of the economy and the state’s labor market because 2020’s fourth quarter conditions were still devastated,” the report read. 

These changes leave Wyoming with an unemployment rate of 4%, which is slightly lower than the national average of 4.2%. 

That said, the rate at which Wyoming’s unemployment rate is declining is slower than the U.S. Both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks recorded their second highest visitation figures in their fourth quarter history. 

2021 only slightly trailed 2020, a year where the parks saw an astronomical boom in visitation numbers. Still, 2021 was well beyond previous years. 

The increased demand of visitation to the parks has helped create jobs, but Wyoming still has more open positions than it can fill. This trend is caused in part because of the state’s demographics: Wyoming has one of the highest proportions of baby boomers in the nation, with a generation X population that severely lags. 

In other words, there are more people retiring than can fill the vacant positions. 

“That’s kind of special for Wyoming,” said Dr. Wenlin Liu, the chief economist with Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis. 

Total taxable sales also grew 11.7% in the fourth quarter of 2021 compared to 2020, in part because inflation drives up prices. 

“This strong performance was mostly attributed to continued expansions in retail sales, leisure and hospitality services and the moderate rebound in mining,” the report read. 

Spending, however, is complex in Wyoming these days because of what’s called the “wage price spiral.” 

Inflation has driven up prices, which has spurred workers to ask for higher wages. Because industries in Wyoming are desperate for workers, they often grant these raises, Liu explained. By doling out raises, companies are pushed to increase production costs, which then increase prices once again. 

Wyoming’s single-family home values have also increased in part due to the increasingly constrained supply. One solution to expand supply and therefore drive down prices would be to build more homes. 

But it’s not that simple — building homes requires workers, and the state is already struggling to fill vacant positions. 

On the whole, Wyoming’s economy continued to rebound in the final quarter as the delta wave of the pandemic faded, though the comeback was slower than the U.S. average.

 

This story was published on March 31, 2022.

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