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By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
The Wyoming workforce is short on nurses, police officers, teachers, truckers and a swath of other workers.
And the broad explanation for that is — they retired.
“After COVID, many people just are not coming back to the labor force,” Dr. Wenlin Liu, Wyoming chief economist, said in an interview with Cowboy State Daily.
Liu noted that Wyoming has a disproportionately large population of “baby boomers,” people aged 58 to 76, compared to the rest of the nation. Wyoming in 2021 had 103,877 baby boomers, a 48% increase from 2010 and more than 1 percentage point higher than the national average.
“As you can imagine, during COVID, after COVID, many or some of them probably retired early and… they’re just not coming back to the labor force,” said Liu.
Younger workers aren’t rushing in to replace the boomers, because in the proximate age group, there aren’t enough people to fill the void.
There are 13,000 fewer Wyomingites aged 45 to 54, in Generation X, than there are baby boomers.
Wyoming also has more grade-schoolers aged 5 to 15 than the national average. By traditional standards, those individuals can’t be expected to stick around long enough to work in Wyoming, said Liu, noting that young people just entering the workforce often are attracted to metropolitan areas outside the state.
But COVID may have created an exception to that habit, Liu said.
The pandemic’s virtual-workforce trend enabled “professionals,” or white-collar workers, to live in Wyoming while working elsewhere, prompting a migration of Californians and other urban-state workers to rural states like Idaho and, to some extent, Wyoming. Many rural states including Wyoming had more people moving in than moving out from 2020 to 2021.
Wyoming’s economy still isn’t as packed with virtual work as rural East Coast states, he said, because the state’s economy depends heavily on oil and natural gas extraction, where employment still lags about 4,000 workers behind pre-COVID levels but is rebounding moderately.
Liu said he’s very curious to see if people will keep flocking to rural areas in the coming years.
“We’re interested to see, demographers, economists, if this reversion of the migration trend will continue after COVID,” he said, noting with a chuckle that it’s harder for a worker to demand a remote job when there’s no pandemic.
Wyoming’s unemployment is down to its lowest level since 2008, at 3.2%.
While that sounds like a blessing for an ailing workforce, it actually means employers have fewer eligible workers from which to choose employees, Liu said.
People who are retired or who aren’t seeking jobs don’t fall into the “unemployed” statistic.
At an increase of about 3% since 2020, the number of employed workers in Wyoming has been increasing “pretty seriously” while recovering from the business shutdowns and industry busts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hospitality, retail trading, and some professional business services have recovered or exceeded pre-COVID worker numbers, said Liu.
Anti-Cop ‘National Messaging’
But teachers, truckers, nurses, and police officers are harder to find now than they were two years ago, according to industry experts.
Byron Oedekoven, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police, told Cowboy State Daily that the police shortage is statewide, with some departments suffering a shortage of up to 30%.
He attributed the shortage to anti-cop “national messaging,” difficulty giving pay raises from government budgets amid this year’s historic inflation and many applicants’ inability to pass the requirements to enter law enforcement.
“When you consider the psychological, medical, and criminal history associated with law enforcement applicants, for some reason, it’s harder to find (qualified applicants),” said Oedekoven.
And the police agencies have not lowered the goal posts to make the tests more rigorous, he added.
‘It’s A Calling’
When it comes to nurses and “all types of health care providers,” Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association, said the shortfall comes partly from hospitals’ fiscal struggles, which aren’t helped by inflationary hikes on workers’ wage expectations.
Medicaid and Medicare pay predetermined amounts on medical bills.
For Medicare, the federal government is “actually looking at cutting those rates a little bit … so we’re looking at potentially a 2% cut coming up,” said Boley, adding that for Medicaid, the reimbursements have been cut annually through the past several years but, for a change, weren’t reduced this year.
Boley also cited “burnout” from the heightened demands on the industry during COVID, and agreed with Liu that many workers who were at or close to retirement age decided to leave their jobs during the pandemic.
Like police forces, hospitals and other health entities are under inflationary pressure, to pay more because everything costs more.
That pressure causes hikes in medical costs, which further widens the gap between how much the health care industry charges for services and how much the federal government, insurance companies and sometimes the patients, are willing to pay.
“Health care facilities are doing all they can around the state: offering huge sign-on bonuses and all kinds of incentives to try and bring people on, but we’re competing nationwide for the same pool of folks,” said Boley, emphasizing that the health care worker shortage is a national phenomenon. “I hope that we’ll see folks that want to become nurses and get into the healthcare field, because it’s a calling in life, a great job, and a way to serve other people.”
‘Nobody Wants To Work Anymore’
Tightened federal restrictions and a general unwillingness to work hard have caused a trucker shortage, according to two Wyoming truckers who spoke to Cowboy State Daily in June.
“People either don’t want to drive truck or don’t want to work, or a lot of them don’t like new regulations with (federally-mandated electric logging devices),” said Kim Barr, part-owner of Rolling Hills Trucking in Worland.
Kelly Eckhardt, of Kelly Eckhardt Transport in Lander, said trucking managers must weigh their ability to raise wage offerings amid soaring diesel prices.
“‘Nobody wants to work anymore,’ is kind of our saying now,” said Eckhardt. “We try to keep (wages) as high as we can, but I don’t think it’s going to be sustainable.”
In his own interview, Liu said although federal COVID unemployment programs have run out, people who spent less money during the pandemic and were able to save money throughout it may have some leisure to avoid work now. But that can’t last forever, he added.
School officials and State Rep. Jerry Paxton, R-Encampment, told Cowboy State Daily in April that the state is falling into a teacher and school staff shortage.
Paxton blamed the loss on COVID burnout, as teachers endured tricky anti-COVID mitigation measures in 2020 and 2021. He also noted a loss in interest, as fewer young people are going to college to become teachers.
The subject was brought up again in a May 31 meeting of the Legislature’s Education Committee, which Paxton co-chairs, when lawmakers discussed ways to attract more educators to the state.
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