WYDOT Expects To Be Short 60 - 70 Snowplow Workers Come Winter

After a brutal 2022-23 winter that saw extended road closures across much of Wyoming, WYDOT officials say more of the same is in store with the agency shorthanded 60 - 70 snowplow workers.

Andrew Rossi

August 01, 20235 min read

File photo
File photo (Cowboy State Daily Staff)

As more people use Wyoming's roads and highways, fewer are on the job maintaining and patrolling them.

A yearslong staffing crisis continues to snowball for the Wyoming Department of Transportation, which is now struggling to fill between 200 and 300 well-paying jobs with good benefits.

The persistent problem of hiring and retaining employees was acutely felt last winter when extended road closures became increasingly common. The first snow of the season is still several weeks away, but WYDOT is anticipating the storms ahead. It has to.

When The State Does Well, WYDOT Struggles

Cody Beers, spokesman for WYDOT District 5 in northwest Wyoming, says hiring problems are nothing new for the department, which may the victim of some Cowboy State prosperity.

"It's difficult to hire people when the state is doing very well," he said. "People tend to job hop into positions that pay more than WYDOT, such as oil and gas and the various mineral extraction industries.

“When the economy isn't doing as well, we get more applicants. We do offer stability in the workforce."

Not The First Choice For Workers

Many of WYDOT's open positions — drivers, mechanics and engineers — overlap those sought by the extractive industries. And those industries can pay much more than a WYDOT salary, despite the stability of working for the state.

This is clearly seen in the regions where WYDOT is the most shorthanded. District 4, which covers northeast Wyoming, has more than 40 open positions, or 25% of the district's workforce.

Numbers are similar in District 3, which covering southwest Wyoming and the infamous Interstate 80 corridor.

Extractive industries have a strong presence in both regions, with plenty of lucrative positions attracting people with the essential skills WYDOT needs.

COVID Hangover

Beers also believes there's been a small, but significant, change in the national psyche since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Many people figured out they didn't have to do the conventional job route," Beers said. "They could work at home or be part-time and make it work."

These circumstances, and many others, have led to ongoing staff shortages in many government agencies and other businesses around Wyoming and the United States.

Social media advertising is becoming a more important pathway to solutions.

The high visibility is accompanied by a relatively low cost. Beers says the department still spends more on traditional media, like television and newspapers, than its social media campaigns.

What About Winter?

Applicants are trickling in thanks to digital advertising. But it's not enough. All the while those already employed by the department are staring down the barrel of the approaching winter.

This past winter was one of the most intense in recent memory. WYDOT knew it was short on snowplow drivers at this time last year, so it wasn't much of a surprise when there was a deficit of more than 70 plow drivers when significant snow started falling last November.

How did WYDOT manage? It changed lanes.

"WYDOT adjusted well, both at the district level and the state level,” Beers said, adding that leadership “got together and figured out how to make it happen.

“We've become more flexible as an agency. Since the pandemic, with our staffing being a challenge, it's required us to be more flexible as a government agency. We figured out a way to get the job done with less resources.”

Outside The Lines

The department had to break down many of its own barriers to make this happen. Many people plowing Interstate 80 and the roads leading to Casper came from District 5 in northwest Wyoming, one of the few regions with consistently adequate staffing.

Beers said WYDOT has "lived by" its district boundary lines for decades. When his father was a maintenance foreman in Cody, sending anyone across the state to help another district was “unheard of."

Last winter changed that.

Thanks to a significant increase in communication online and the universality of cellphones, coordination between districts is better than ever. And the lines marking each district are "becoming more blurry," especially in times of need, he said.

"It had to happen. Those areas were short of people, and we had the resources and people in northwest Wyoming to help,” Beers said. “And we did that. Casper is as much Wyoming as Riverton, Cody, Gillette and Rawlins."

With better roads, vehicles, and equipment, snow was cleared, and traffic resumed. But perhaps most important, WYDOT did this through an ongoing staff shortage.

Not Eager For An Encore

While it managed, WYDOT doesn’t want to go through another winter so shorthanded and "desperately" needs more workers.

But it looks like the department will enter this winter season with significantly fewer people. This will likely mean more extended road closures, as WYDOT lacks the warm bodies needed to clear roads during snowstorms.

Last winter, many employees had to make the difficult decision to "sit out the storms" before clearing the roads. Unless there is a sudden influx of new snowplow drivers, they will probably make the same difficult decisions this winter.

"From a manpower standpoint, we made it work,” Beers said. “I'm not going to say it's without challenges. We want to be fully staffed, but this may be the new reality in Wyoming. We're going to have to do more with less."

Beers has made WYDOT a career and hopes more Wyomingites consider a career with the department.

Open positions offer good pay and benefits, and Beers said Gov. Mark Gordon and the Wyoming Legislature are "making moves" to make all state government jobs more desirable.

"It's a great place to work. I like public service. We offer the opportunity to do something pretty important in the state of Wyoming: to work on our transportation infrastructure,” he said. “I like the freedom my job gives me to do what's right. I like our mission and values. I like to work with people. I'm in the perfect job."

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

Features Reporter