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Construction boom, labor and housing challenges loom in SW Wyoming

The region is scrambling to prepare for an influx of more than 6,000 construction workers. One developer warns they’ll ‘want more quality of life than they’ve had in the past.’

Olivia Varley helps a customer at Varley Mercantile in Point of Rocks, Wyoming. The combination gas station, bar, restaurant and trailer park, which is located off Interstate 80 near the coal-fired Jim Bridger Plant, is frequented by workers of the plant and associated mines. (RJ Pieper)

by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

Four years ago, southwest Wyoming was reeling from energy industry layoffs, anticipating further economic challenges and wondering how to prevent an all-out youth exodus. Today, anxieties remain high, but for very different, and many say better, reasons.

At least five major industrial projects appear imminent, thanks in large part to an influx of private and federal investment driven by last year’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Anticipating major expansion of the region’s bedrock trona mining industry, a pair of carbon dioxide management projects and a $4 billion nuclear power plant backed by Bill Gates and the U.S. Department of Energy, local leaders now fret about how to recruit and house enough skilled workers. 

Combined, the projects may require more than 6,000 temporary construction workers over the next five years, according to estimates. Workers are beginning to trickle in, and quality, affordable housing is already proving scarce, said Kayla McDonald of the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition. 

The southwest Wyoming city of Rock Springs, pictured in December 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

The average home price in Rock Springs, for example, is about $400,000, McDonald estimated, while a lot of rental properties that were built during past boom times don’t meet quality expectations of today’s skilled transient workforce.

“There’s a lot [of housing] that’s not dependable and in need of updating and remodeling,” McDonald said. “There was a comment made that when it comes to housing there should be a vetting process so that we don’t get somebody who’s just going to come throw them up and leave, but actually build a quality product.”

And though trona and energy project developers will tap into a national traveling workforce with specialized skills for a portion of their construction labor needs, they’re also relying on a major training effort to recruit Wyoming workers and, in particular, soon-to-be-graduates from colleges and high schools around the state.

“We know there are large numbers of employees that are going to be needed and houses that are going to need to be built,” McDonald said. “It’s exciting. It’s also a huge challenge to prepare for. But we’re up for the task.”

Recruiting men, women and students

Though each project timeline is dependent on separate permitting schedules, developers expect much of the major construction will overlap, which means there’s an urgent need for workforce training.

“Business is going to have to step up in a way that we have never stepped up in Wyoming.” RITA MEYER, CEO WYOMING ENERGY FUTURES AND FORMER STATE AUDITOR

Both industry and local leaders are looking to Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to lead the effort in the region, McDonald said, as well as the University of Wyoming and Department of Workforce Services at the state level. Several of the developers are members of the Southwest Wyoming Manufacturing Partnership, another coordinated recruiting and training effort. Project developers are targeting people already working in Wyoming, as well as students who will enter the workforce in coming years, said Craig Rood of Project West, which plans to construct a new trona mine and soda ash processing facility west of Green River. 

“We are doing a lot to develop employees and get the younger folks in our community interested in these types of projects and these types of jobs,” Rood said during a recent public forum in Green River hosted by the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition.

While Wyoming’s unemployment rate is trending lower than the national average, it’s about on pace with the national average in the southwest corner of the state, according to state figures. (Wyoming Department of Workforce Services)

The unemployment rate in southwest Wyoming ranges from 3.3% to 3.6%, according to the Department of Workforce Services’ August edition of Wyoming Labor Force Trends. In Sweetwater County, that amounts to only 633 people seeking work, McDonald estimated. 

While growing and tapping the local labor pool is preferable, Rood said, developers have no choice but to simultaneously recruit workers from outside the state. “We’re going to have to go out and do external recruiting around the country because we just don’t have the population in Wyoming to support all of these jobs,” Rood said. “Even if everyone stayed and went to work in these jobs, we just don’t have the population.”

The collaborative efforts between project developers, counties and the state must also include recruiting and training more women and people from the Wind River Indian Reservation, said Wyoming Energy Futures CEO Rita Meyer, who spoke on behalf of TerraPower, the developer of the Natrium nuclear power project in Kemmerer.

“We’re going to need every worker,” said Meyer, who served as Wyoming State Auditor from 2007 to 2011 and narrowly lost a 2010 bid for governor. “A lot of single women are out there and they’re an untapped resource for these really good jobs. 

“But they’re going to be looking at housing — affordable housing,” Meyer continued. “And they’re going to be looking at childcare. So business is going to have to step up in a way that we have never stepped up in Wyoming.” 

‘Quality’ of life, housing

Rather than each town and county conducting its own assessment, local officials are looking to the Wyoming Community Development Authority to measure housing needs, McDonald said. The organization plans to publish its latest statewide assessment in December.

Meantime, an April housing report by the Wyoming Business Council found that local zoning restrictions and a lagging investment in public infrastructure are the primary obstacles to expanding affordable housing in the state. 

Bill Gates addresses a crowd of local leaders May 5, 2023, in Kemmerer. He is joined by Chris Levesque, Tara Neider and Mark Werner of TerraPower. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“Besides outright restrictions on housing development,” the report’s authors wrote, “we find that the most common cost driver undermining the housing development has to do with low public investment in needed arterial infrastructure, especially water systems.”

In addition to more rentals and permanent housing, project developers are encouraging businesses to expand RV parks. Other forms of temporary housing, such as man camps — batteries of mobile living units that typically isolate workers from their families and nearby towns — haven’t been fully ruled out. Man camps have a reputation for contributing to crime spikes.

Rood, a longtime resident of Sweetwater County, said permanent housing should be the focus, however, because after construction there will be hundreds of new permanent jobs.

“It’s very complicated,” Rood said. “We haven’t been through this kind of huge growth in Sweetwater County since the 1980s. It’s going to be interesting.”

Businesses and local officials should also keep in mind that “temporary” construction workers today have higher expectations when it comes to quality of life outside of work hours, Meyer said. They’re going to want access to cultural events, workshops at local community colleges and a range of opportunities to participate in the community.

“People think, ‘Well, the construction folks are used to this. They travel around and it’s rough-and-tumble,’” Meyer said. “Well, I’m here to tell you that today, our construction workers want more quality of life than they’ve had in the past.”

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.