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Mountain West's mixed job numbers reveal an uneven pandemic rebound

Drone 4k footage of a large residential neighborhood in Eagle, Idaho looking towards Boise, Idaho.
A large residential neighborhood in Eagle, Idaho, looking towards Boise, Idaho.

News brief

National unemployment rates continue to go down as the country recovers from the pandemic, but county-level job numbers in the Mountain West are extremely mixed, and reveal that some of the region's more rural areas have been slower to rebound.

The Daily Yonder, a news organization that covers rural issues, used Bureau of Labor Statistics data to create a map showing county employment data.

In it, Idaho stands out as the only state where every county had an increase in jobs between July 2019 and July 2022.

“To be honest, it’s not surprising because Idaho was the least affected state by the pandemic in terms of job loss,” said Craig Shaul, a research analyst supervisor with the Idaho Department of Labor.

Leading the Idaho job sectors is construction, which likely isn’t surprising since it’s one of the fast-growing states and there’s a massive demand for more housing.

But right next door, Nevada is one of only a few states where every county lost jobs. Shaul says it started with steep declines early on, “and so they’ve had a much larger hole to dig out from.”

Early in the pandemic, Nevada had the nation’s highest unemployment rate at more than 28%.

In other areas, more rural communities have had a harder time recovering from early job losses.

In Colorado, only one of its urban counties -- those with more than 50,000 residents -- reported job losses between July 2019 and July 2022, while 15 rural counties lost jobs.

In New Mexico, about half of urban counties reported job losses, but more than two-thirds of rural counties reported the same.

Meanwhile, Wyoming’s job numbers are mixed, and require some nuance to understand. The largest losses are in counties that have depended on fossil fuel production, like Sweetwater County, which lost 2,729 jobs, and Campbell County, which lost 1,485.

University of Wyoming economist Rob Godby pointed to a recent state analysis that showed the thousands of jobs lost via oil and gas, not to mention coal.

“Our energy employment has been decimated,” he said.

At the same time, he noted that even within counties losing jobs, there are still pockets of increasing employment and housing struggles. For example, the town of Rock Springs is in Sweetwater County, and it has transitory oil and gas jobs leaving while the number of more permanent trona mining positions grow.

“You’ve got underlying economic growth and you have not very much single-family housing being built,” he said.

This juxtaposition of job losses neighboring smaller pockets of job growth or increased population can be found all around the state.

In parts of the state with high costs of living -- like Jackson -- Godby said reduced jobs numbers might reflect lower-paying service industry jobs that businesses are having a hard time filling.

But elsewhere, low taxes and affordable housing may attract retirees. Then areas like Cheyenne have become bedroom communities for Colorado’s Front Range. And there’s even a surge in growth in Sheridan in northern Wyoming, which gained more than 500 jobs over the last few years.

“It’s a less-discovered mountain community,” he said. “It’s an up-and-comer.”

Godby cautioned that there's too little data to confirm some of his hypotheses about why jobs and populations are growing in some areas and aren’t in others. However, his observations match trends economists are seeing play out all around the region and the nation.

“The collapse of the oil and gas industry…the fact that the hospitality and tourism sector is still desperate for workers…and then you have these broader real estate trends where some of the places that are still affordable are some of the more rural counties in Wyoming,” he said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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