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SHERIDAN — Each month, economists with the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services generate unemployment statistics for each county in the state. While Wyoming’s unemployment is substantially lower than the national average today, a more critical look at the driving forces of the state’s economy suggests Sheridan County’s economic outlook might be artificially inflated.
While the statewide unemployment rate is hailed at the low rate of 4 percent in comparison with the national average of 6.3 percent, nearly one-third of Wyoming counties are within one percentage point of the national median. It’s counties with remarkably low unemployment rates, like Converse County, 3.1 percent or Sublette and Campbell counties, 3.3, that make for a deceptive statewide average.
University of Wyoming Director of Economics and Finance Anne Alexander used the state’s most recent county-by-county unemployment numbers to highlight the disparities between the state’s geographical areas last week at the Small Business Administration’s Economic Outlook presentation at Sheridan College.
The counties in the north central section of the state are plagued with unemployment rates upward of 5 percent.
While Sheridan County is sitting at 5.1 percent this month, neighboring Johnson and Big Horn counties are hovering at 5.8 and 5.7 percent, respectively.
An interesting phenomenon in Sheridan’s economy is the number of workers who leave the county to attain regular work. Specifically, a significant portion of Sheridan’s workforce makes the daily drive to Montana to work in the Decker or Spring Creek coal mines. Crossing state lines to earn a paycheck, workers who make their homes in Sheridan are paying income taxes in Montana. The Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce lists the two Montana-based mines as the fourth and 12th largest employers in the county as of July of last year.
Other significant factions of Sheridan’s energy workers make even longer trips to the Powder River Basin or even the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota in order to work in the regional natural gas boom.
Sheridan County’s sixth largest employer, Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, is yet another major driver of the local economy that counts on employees to perform a significant portion of their work outside the parameters of the county.
When travel heavy, energy-based jobs are removed from the equation, what’s left of the Sheridan County economy is health care, education and a lot of retail and service sector jobs that traditionally exist to support a generic population. That’s why ebbs and flows in oil prices, coal plant emission restrictions and natural gas prices have the capacity to make or break the overall economic picture of the state.
The economic fluctuations of the last few years are par for the course in a state where the economy is driven by energy.
“We have very little control over the fact there are gong to be recession and boom times,” Alexander said, indicating it took the state longer to descend into the clutches of the Great Recession of 2007 and was spared of the worst unemployment wave of the decade.
“The highest unemployment we ever saw was 7.5 percent, and even that was a lot better than what we saw at the national level,” Alexander said.
However, Wyoming’s insulation from the bursted housing bubble only did so much good when compared to sinking natural gas prices and a declining domestic coal market.
“We go into a boom for completely different reasons than the rest of the country, and our recent slowdown was for completely different reasons as well,” she said.
Even with the national economy regaining its footing, Alexander cautioned against using statewide averages to ignore a fragmented economic picture.
“When we talk about how Wyoming is doing — the state of Wyoming’s economy — this is an important picture to keep in mind. We’re not all the same,” she said. “What about the lost children?
“How do we work together to make sure those folks aren’t left behind?”