Is economy okay or horrible? Well, that depends on who you ask and what numbers you consider

Damien Molzahn assists customer Pam Rovinder at the Grasslands Market in Douglas on Nov. 11.

While economic indicators and hard numbers are, admittedly, fluctuating nearly daily throughout Wyoming and Converse County, some of the most recent ones out this month seem to support the idea of a slow, steady return to an economic “normal,” whatever that is, in this part of the Cowboy State.

But how you interpret those numbers can be influenced by whether you are pessimistic or optimistic about the short and long-term outlook, and who you ask. Sales tax numbers are up for the city and county, but that seems to be more a factor of a wind farm construction than a longer-term uptick, yet retail sales taxes rebounded slightly for a couple months but local officials are reluctant to predict that will continue.

And, of course, who knows what the spread of the coronavirus will do to the economic picture locally, statewide and nationally in coming weeks and months.

So, let’s start by looking at Wyoming’s unemployment rate, which dropped to 6.1% in September, from 6.6% in August. The unemployment rate has steadily decreased since its peak of 9.6% in April.

It appears the state’s economy is recovering and individuals are slowly going back to work, according to a report released by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services this week. Wyoming’s unemployment rate remains considerably lower than the national average of 7.9%.

In September, 16,324 people were unemployed statewide compared to 17,874 in August. While that’s good news, it is tempered by the fact that in September 2019, only 9,663 people were unemployed in the state.

However, even before the pandemic struck Wyoming, the state was experiencing very slow job growth in the first quarter, according to Wyoming Department of Workforce Services (WDWS) Research & Planning Senior Economist David Bullard.

As the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions hit Wyoming in the second quarter of 2020, widespread job losses were seen. According to WDWS data, preliminary statistics show that from second quarter 2019 to second quarter 2020, Wyoming lost approximately 26,840 jobs (-9.6%) and total payroll fell by $215 million (-6.4%).

Bullard said it’s still too early to be optimistic about energy-related jobs in the state or in Converse County.

“Some of the jobs are coming back, but to get any more specific about the energy sector, a lot depends on energy prices. We’re not seeing a lot of movement right now,” Bullard said. “We follow the rig counts, too. Rig counts are a more current indicator than employment data.”

So let’s look at rig counts.

Optimistically, the glass may be half full, as rig counts have been slowly, steadily rising in Wyoming during the last three months. The count at one point just a couple of months ago reached zero, due to a combination of factors including the pandemic and the energy boom and bust cycle hitting rock bottom.

Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission Supervisor Mark Watson notes six rigs are standing in the state as of this week (the sixth one was stood up since the monthly report was issued). This time last year there were 32 rigs up in Wyoming, according to data collected from Baker-Hughes’ records.

Of the six wells, three are in Campbell County, two in Converse and one in Sublette, he said.

The number of applications for drilling permits (APDs) the commission received in October was 248, a decrease of 128 from September.

But rigs are only one measure; jobs are a bigger one. Not surprisingly, Converse saw big losses from March onward.

Bullard said in the second quarter, employment fell by 1,100 jobs, a 15.7% decrease in employment for the county, which was larger than the statewide drop of 9.6%.

“You guys have been hit harder than the statewide average,” he acknowledged. “We’ve been expecting this for some time. The largest job losses are in construction, it’s down 600 jobs. We knew a lot of pipeline and natural gas jobs would wrap up at some point. The mining sector, including oil and gas, is down a little over 200 jobs in the second quarter. Together that’s about 800 of the 1,100 jobs which were lost. There were smaller losses across other sectors, but that’s the majority of where you were hit.”

Bullard said wind farm construction around the state is contributing to present job growth.

“We’re seeing that in our numbers now with the wind farms, the jobs are in the construction end of it. Once the wind farms are built, the available jobs actually go down quite considerably. It’s a short term thing, but it helps for a time.”

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