The first bust that Tom Gallagher witnessed was in North Dakota more than 30 years ago. The housing market fell apart.
Families hunkered down, first turning to unemployment and food assistance programs. Then they left.
Neighboring Wyoming was suffering from the same sickness: an oil bust in an oil-dependent economy.
Wyoming is once again dealing with the fallout from low energy prices, and over the last few years the bombardment has been staggering. Many have left the Cowboy State for greener pastures, and how many will come back is unknown.
“Everybody wants to know if we are done with the recession in this state,” said Gallagher, manager of the Research and Planning Division of the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. “We don’t know.”
Economists in the state recently revealed just how many people disappeared from the payrolls during the state’s economic decline from 2014 to 2016.
It was about 25,000, according to Research and Planning’s report.
At the end of 2016, 112,000 people had disappeared from Wyoming’s workforce after the price of crude went sour, coal companies laid off miners and natural gas prices stagnated. Fewer than 88,000 came in.
A net loss of about 25,000 working people is significant in a small state like Wyoming, where the average monthly employment at the end of 2016 was only 267,000 people, and there are reasons to believe that the bounce back this time around won’t be a steady increase.
The loss of workers is similar to the evaporation of jobs during the coal bed methane bust, the most recent swift downturn in Wyoming’s economy.
Between 2008 and 2010, the state had a net loss of about 30,000 workers.
“When we went through the coal bed methane bust, a lot of these people went on unemployment insurance and virtually overwhelmed the system,” he said. “This was a time when there was a national recession, so there was nowhere to go.”
Cinching your belt and finding other work in the state was, for many, the only option.
“The difference between these two time periods is now, the economy is not in a national recession,” he said. “There are places to go.”
From diversified economies like Colorado to bustling energy bastions in the Dakotas, Oklahoma or Texas, workers have options.
But the reasons people stay or come back are complicated.
“Why would you stay here if you don’t have a job?” Gallagher said.
Some might have family in Wyoming or other personal ties that would draw them back if the oil and gas industry picks up.
Not all of the missing people on Gallagher’s charts have deep ties here. Some may have earned a wage in Wyoming at some point and are counted on the payroll but aren’t necessarily residents of the state. For example, about one-third of Wyoming’s construction workforce, a sizable part of the state’s jobs picture, lives out of state, he said.
There are some job groups that didn’t bleed workers in the downturn, and some demographics that don’t appear to budge when the economy slides.
Most of the losses Wyoming has suffered are young men. Professional women represent a stable workforce, though their average wages are much lower, Gallagher said.
The rebound of the lost workers in the Cowboy State as things improve, or at least remain stable, has its challenges.
According to Jim Robinson of the Wyoming Economic Analysis Division the state’s labor market is in “recovery mode.”
The job gap has shrunk since this time last year.
Jobless claims in the mining sector, which includes oil and gas, are down by 80 percent compared with May of last year — the midpoint in a terrible year for oil, gas and coal.
The bleed of high-paying jobs in places like Campbell County, home to the state’s largest coal mines and a number of producing oil and gas plays, has tapered off.
Oil and gas jobs are up by 1,700 from a year ago, according to the economic analysis count. Those numbers are concurrent with the increase in drilling activity. The number of oil and gas rigs drilling in the state reached 25 in June, up from seven the year before.
From lease sales to applications with state regulators to drill in Wyoming, operators are clearly hoping to get back to business. Those companies will need workers.
However, the contraction in the job market may linger.
For coal jobs, only about 300 people have returned from a loss of 1,000 between 2014 and 2016, according to the Wyoming Mining Association.
As the most obvious, and most dramatic, impacts of a sudden downturn taper off, the gap in employment continues to hit local coffers.
Campbell County lost $1 billion of its overall value between 2015 and 2016 — indicative of decreased spending by the biggest coal company to the average family. Sales and use taxes were down nearly $20 million over the last fiscal year, according to the economic analysis division.
The coal jobs that have evaporated in the region since the bust means roughly $11 million in salaries is gone from the local economy, said Gallagher, from the research and planning department.
“That’s money not spent on car repairs, haircuts, groceries,” he said. “This is something that’s not terribly visible. It’s something that quietly works its way through the system. It’s a fair amount of money.”