During the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike Hills’ employer sent him and other workers home for a month — an entire month without pay.
The one-month hiatus from work forced a seismic change in the way Hills used to think about his livelihood. He was making a pretty good income and thought he was on a good career track.
“I was just like, ‘How are you guys still functioning as a corporation without us?’ And that’s when it really triggered in my head,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “It’s like, you know, if they can send you home and not need you for a month and still make profits and do all this sort of stuff, let’s start saving money now, because I don’t know if I’m needed.”
In the weeks and months that followed, Hills panic-squirreled away every nickel and dime he possibly could. Then, when he felt like he had enough, he used what he calls his “rat’s nest” of panic money to create a new side hustle, determined that he’d never be without economic means again.
At first, the side hustle was pouring cute concrete figurines, which were sold either online or out of a relative’s greenhouse. The concrete figurines had been a hobby for fun or to make gifts for family and friends.
That was all right. But later, thanks to worry over a nearly lost wedding ring, he stumbled onto an even better idea. Now he makes one-of-a-kind keepsake rings for people out of metal and bone bands that he sources from other artisans.
The rings have become his main hustle now, and he isn’t looking back.
Corporate America is firmly in his rear-view mirror.
Cowboy State Workforce Gap Is Huge
Hills was just one of dozens of artisans plying their wares at the recent Beartrap Summer Festival in Casper.
Several told Cowboy State Daily they started their side gigs either during or right after the pandemic, which they are now eyeing as future full-time ventures.
Their stories are a microcosm of the larger forces at play in the economy, and they illuminate how younger generations of workers are rethinking, wholesale, how to make a living.
That comes even as Wyoming businesses across the Cowboy State report they are struggling to find workers to fill jobs now that the pandemic is over.
In Hulett, for example, Michael Dean Coronato told Cowboy state Daily he’s been keeping the Ponderosa Cafe and Bar going with a shoestring staff — himself and two or three other people.
He would hire six to nine people on the spot if he could, double or triple what he presently has.
“Our industry has this real misnomer that there’s no money to be made,” Coronato said.
Good waitresses get great tips, he suggested. It just depends on how hard they’re willing to work.
Across the street at the Red Rock Cafe, owner Sharon Penning told Cowboy State Daily much the same thing. She’s had to curtail hours because she can’t hire enough people to be open all day.
Coronato, too, often has irregular hours because of the labor shortage.
“Our hours are not set in stone, nobody’s are,” he said. “One day you’re open, one day you’re not, and it’s because of the labor situation.”
Working Culture Shifts
Wyoming’s Chief Economist in the Economics Analysis Division, Wenlin Liu, told Cowboy State Daily he doesn’t have any data on the size of the gap between labor supply and labor demand, but unemployment rates in Wyoming are nearing historic lows.
“Our unemployment rate has dropped again,” he said. “Now it’s 3%. (That’s) the lowest since our natural gas (was) booming in summer 2008.”
Surrounding states, the job market looks even hotter. North Dakota’s unemployment rate, for example, is hovering around 2% for July.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, estimates that Wyoming has 61 available workers for every 100 job openings.
Like many employers, Coronato feels like people just don’t want to work after the pandemic. And he’s seen plenty of examples firsthand of people who say they’re going to do a job and then don’t show up, or who show up and then don’t do a very good job.
But many of the workers starting side hustles say they are not necessarily working less. They’re just seeing things differently now than before the pandemic.
“A lot of people, during the pandemic, discovered an underground economy — jobs that use your imagination,” Laurie Rigg told Cowboy State Daily. “People who might have otherwise taken low-wage jobs are finding they might have the potential to make a lot more (working for themselves).”
Rigg herself is pursuing an unconventional job as a mobile notary public in Wyoming. She calls it Purple Sage Consulting, and it’s allowed her to travel and see more of the state, which had long been a bucket list item.
It’s Not Less Work
Brandi Olson started a Casper business called Text-It Treats as the pandemic was winding down. Lots of things were being delivered then. Why not some of her baked or chocolate-dipped treats?
But the pandemic also gave Olson lots and lots of time to think about her life and what she wants from it.
“We were working from home a lot and, like, only having one or two people at a time (at work),” she said. “It was super boring. Like, there wasn’t a lot to do, so I just started like making more and more (stuff).”
Her idea for an online food-delivery business turned out to be more complicated — and more expensive — than she’d expected, because she didn’t have a commercial kitchen. But she wasn’t going to let that stop her.
She started going to craft festivals in 2021 instead, bringing cake pops and chocolate-covered cereal snack bars.
She found an enthusiastic crowd was out there, ready and willing to buy her creations.
Not only that, but working for herself was fun and liberating. It wasn’t that she was doing less work, or that the work is easier. It’s the fact that it isn’t boring or routine anymore. She gets to use all of her creativity, the rewards are hers to keep, and if she needs flexibility for family occasions, she’s the boss.
Olson is also loving all the new things that she’s learning about marketing and managing a business, and the more she learns, the more success she’s finding.
Her latest and greatest idea are back-to-school treats — apple-shaped cereal treats covered in red glitter sugar with a pretzel for a stem and two green M&Ms for leaves. There’s also a writable cookie and pencil-shaped sugar wafers.
Her first post for these treats had a quick 26 comments, several ordering multiple boxes.
“I still have my job,” Olson told Cowboy State Daily. “But we started moving to more part-time and stuff, and I think we’re heading into the direction of quitting.”
The only reason she hasn’t quit already, Olson added, is that she likes her employer, who is getting ready to retire soon. She’s doesn’t want to leave him in the lurch, so she’s waiting for that.
Once that happens, she wants to focus on her business full-time.
The ongoing labor crunch is something she and her friends have talked about.
“Everyone is having so much trouble finding people, and that is interesting,” she said. “They have to be somewhere, right?”
For Some, It’s All About Respect
For Brittany A. Batchelor, a Millennial who has started a side gig making dog treats, she sees the pandemic as more of a catalyst for something that was already percolating to some degree in the younger Gen Z workforce, which is ages 19 to 24, and Millennials like herself, who are between 25 and 40.
“It’s bigger than the pandemic,” Batchelor said. “I think it has to do with people feeling respected in the workplace. Because my generation, a lot of it is people are starting to call their bosses out on the respect.”
People today are also valuing their time more now, too, and looking at what do they really need from life, she said.
“That’s something that for years I don’t think was even considered, but I think that’s a big, big part of it,” she said. “Because a lot of my friends, they want to go do their own thing. They want to be able to go to their family events or their kids’ graduation or whatever, and that hasn’t always been an option.”
The pandemic really helped people realize the importance of family, Batchelor said.
“Just being able to step aside and realize that they had, you know, family at home waiting for them,” she said. “And then they got to spend time with their family (because of the pandemic) and they’re realizing just what they’re missing out on that they didn’t realize before.”
Everything suddenly shutting down also rang alarm bells for lots of her friends.
“I think it has more to do with people are valuing themselves a little differently now, which is great,” she said.
Batchelor, who works part-time as a bookkeeper, said she can see the dog treat business becoming her main hustle someday.
“It’s going really well, so if I keep going in that direction, that’s definitely a possibility,” she said.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.