By Kevin Knapp, WyoFile
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.
The Wyoming Department of Health provides COVID-19 case, variant, death, testing, hospital and vaccine data online. The department also shares information about how the data can be interpreted. COVID-19 safety recommendations are available from the CDC.