Guest column: Where have all the workers gone?
Labor Day is a day to celebrate the workers who keep our country running. They’re the ones who keep our businesses open and our economy strong. However, as I’ve visited policymakers, business owners and workers throughout the state, one question invariably pops up: Where have all the workers gone? We’ve all heard the phrases “the Great Resignation,” “quiet quitting,” “boomeranging,” “gig workers,” and other new terms to describe a new workforce and workplace. But what does this mean to businesses clamoring for help and workers still looking for employment?
There’s no question Wyoming is in a challenging position right now. Statistics from the Department of Workforce Services’ Research and Planning (R&P) division show: In 2000, older workers (those aged 55 and up) accounted for one in 10 people working in Wyoming at any time. In 2020, that number is one in five. To say that Wyoming’s workforce is aging at a much greater rate than its total population is in no way an exaggeration; Wyoming’s older resident population increased 76 percent over the last two decades, from 102,685 in 2000 to 181,073 in 2020. At the same time, there has been a steady decline in millennials working in Wyoming, from a peak of 121,654 in 2014 to 102,150 in 2020.
So, where are our workers going? Numbers point in two different directions. Our older workers are retiring in numbers greater than we’ve experienced before, including those who are retiring at a non-traditional age (i.e., under age 65); and the decline in millennials working in Wyoming is substantially greater than the decline in the state’s overall millennial population. There are several possible reasons for this:
- Workers lost their jobs and moved to other states to work, or found more appealing work in other states.
- Individuals may live in Wyoming but commute to a neighboring state to work, or telework for a company in another state, or even another country.
- Individuals may have left the labor force entirely, or are just not working.
- Individuals may be self-employed or working gig-type jobs, such as rideshare or food delivery jobs.
But there is hope
Jeff Schulz, Wyoming Workforce Services program manager in Cheyenne, reports that we are slowly seeing numbers of job seekers increase in the center. In fact, August’s monthly job fair had the highest number of job seekers the Cheyenne center had ever seen.
While we’re still hearing of an increase in employers struggling to find employees, the fact remains that Wyoming’s current unemployment rate sits at 3 percent, a number that historically shows that most people who want jobs have them. According to R & P, Wyoming is projected to gain approximately 9,000 jobs from second quarter 2021 to second quarter 2023. How, then, can employers hope to attract and keep the best and the brightest?
There are a number of ways, it turns out; the pandemic changed the way we do business – not just in Wyoming, but across the nation. Our employees are the ones who keep us moving forward. Look at your employees as an investment, and treat them as such; pay above-average salaries; show your appreciation and respect; don’t micromanage; encourage input and feedback; offer career growth and provide flexibility for a good work-life balance – whether that means the option for teleworking or a hybrid model of teleworking depending on the needs of the organization, flexible scheduling such as a four-day work week with longer days, a longer work week with shorter days, or options for alternative working hours within the eight-hour workday.
We know that Wyoming workers have an incredible work ethic, and others are starting to take notice. WalletHub recently ranked Wyoming as the 10th hardest-working state and tied for second in average workweek hours. The issue is not that our citizens don’t want to work; it's that the best and the brightest know their value. So Wyoming employers — it’s up to all of us to work together to come up with solutions to entice them to stay. For those employees who are not quite qualified or ready for those jobs, it’s up to the rest of us to help them, and give them every opportunity to succeed. In fact, the Governor’s Wyoming Innovation Partnership initiative is meant to do just that and is already looking toward that objective with 17 projects in the works across Wyoming. Working together, we can put qualified workers into these positions, to provide a thriving future for Wyoming.