September 13, 2006


Flush With Jobs, Wyoming Woos Rust Belt Labor (KIRK JOHNSON, 9/13/06, NY Times)

Labor-starved Wyoming, with its energy boom in coal, oil and natural gas, is vigorously courting the workers of the Rust Belt — in particular, those in Michigan’s struggling auto industry. And the workers are responding, and adjusting to a very different life in the West.

Wyoming economic development officials and company representatives are planning their third recruiting trip this year, visiting job fairs next month in Flint, Lansing and Grand Rapids. A billboard depicting a lush Wyoming will go up on the highway outside Flint later this month and be seen by an estimated 65,000 people a day.

“Michigan has been very good for us,” said Ruth Benson, the director of the Campbell County Economic Development Corporation, who has twice led recruiting expeditions to depressed cities in Michigan.

So far, about 1,500 Michigan residents have signed up to receive job postings through the Wyoming work force Web site, and at least several hundred, employers and recruiters say, have moved to the state.

Mrs. Mellentine’s husband, Joe, is one of those who heard the call. Mr. Mellentine, 35, a former ironworker and landscaper from Chesaning, just outside Flint, moved here in March after hearing about Wyoming at a job fair. “I came to get a piece of the American pie,” said Mr. Mellentine, who works for a company that prepares sites for natural gas drilling.

Mrs. Mellentine and their two sons joined him in July, and he has since talked three of his childhood friends in Michigan into heading West as well.

They are all still very much adjusting to the change. But many former Michigan residents say their Wyoming experience — voting for change with their feet, trading the comfortable and familiar for a boomtown life more than 1,000 miles from home — has reaffirmed their faith that good things can still happen with a little gumption.

“A lot of people are afraid to take a chance,” said Eric Chapdelaine, 33, who was lured here by Mr. Mellentine and is now driving a cargo truck to coal mines and drilling sites. “But you’ve got to make it happen — or sit back and let it happen.”

The Timesmen just seemed shock that city folk can adjust to country life.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2006 10:50 PM

I had no idea that Wyoming is a thousand miles away from Mighigan! I guess that's my east coast outlook talking. Damn this is a big country. We could easily fit in 500 million people by 2050.

Posted by: andrew at September 14, 2006 12:38 AM

Wyoming is the 10th largest state (97,818 sq. miles) with the smallest population of any state (493,782 - 2000 Census, 51st ranking) for a population density of only 5.05/sq. mile. It has two seasons: Winter (Oct. - April) and non-Winter (the remainder of the months if you are lucky), and the wind always blows in a large part of the state.

Posted by: jd watson at September 14, 2006 1:08 AM

We've got drilling companies working in Wyoming placing ads for oilfield workers down here in West Texas, when West Texas can't get enough people to work in the oilfields, and in turn, can't get people just out of high school to work at $10-$12 an hour starter jobs, when they can make $20 an hour working on the rigs.

The overall cost of living in the oil patch western states remains low, as long as you're not doing major driving on your own time, so those who are willing to work in the drilling industry tend to have a lot of disposable income on their hands (a good way to start an early nest egg if you're smart, even after you've bought your $30,000 pick-up, though a lot of the cash being earned by the young'uns seems to be going straight to Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Mo., every weekend).

Posted by: John at September 14, 2006 1:37 AM

The NYT is so provincial that it doesn't realize this has been happening since the late 1970s?

Lots of people left PA, NY, NJ, MI, IN, etc. and headed south and west. The population gains in the Sun Belt are not all immigrants and retirees (although the Times probably thinks so).

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 14, 2006 7:42 AM

I went prairie chicken hunting for a week all over the state of Wyoming in 1990. It's a boom-bust place. A lot of towns by then, had gone bust. What was left were cement slabs with electrical hookups where trailers had been set up for the workers. There is very little "housing" in areas where the drilling is going on. These new workers are living in tailers. Living in these trailer parks is hardly country living. When gas goes back down to $1.50 a gallon, these places will once again go bust.

Posted by: AllenS at September 14, 2006 8:22 AM


Does West Texas have the same issue of reluctance to build housing in mass numbers that Wyoming does? There are folks who work in the Powder Basin coal mines who commute from as far away as Belle Fourche, SD. Yep, a 100 mile commute!

While the money is extremely good, you still have a lot of guys who live 4 to a motel room and up to 10 to a beat-up trailer up there. It's not because of cost: Too many developers in the area got burned the last time Wyo. had a big boom.

Posted by: Brad S at September 14, 2006 8:31 AM

Also, the reason Wyoming has so few citizens is the lack of accessible water. You can drill and find oil and gas, but no water.

Posted by: AllenS at September 14, 2006 8:33 AM

Brad --

Yes and no. In the more reliable areas of the oil patch like Midland-Odessa and even smaller towns like Andrews, there's been a wave of new home construction over the past couple of years, because there are enough jobs at decent income levels that are expected to hang around for a while so that builders feel confident they can put up homes in the $150,000-$200,000 range (which would be $750,000 to $1 million homes in hotter markets in the country) and get their money back on them if the price of oil drops siignificantly.

Other areas are similar to Wyoming -- there are plenty of jobs out there right now that could finance purchase of homes at those prices, but the builders are wary of putting anything in that they'll get stuck with down the line. Meanwhile, the drilling firms are limiting their new satellite office/yard construction for the same reason -- fear of a future downturn -- and some of the younger ones don't want to put permanent roots down; they'd rather rent than buy for the time being and keep their options open for moving elsewhere later.

So in those places, either trailer homes are put in or only apartments are being financed and built right now. Some workers are commuting, but mainly what you're seeing is area hotels and motels are SRO with oil/gas land company employees and roustabout workers. Great for cities on bed tax collection; not as good if you're hoping to attract new businesses for your new residents, since if they won't commit to a long-term oil boom, the businesses won't commit, either (and the fact the oil companies haven't committed has been the main reason why I've been confident oil prices were eventually going to come down at least to the $50 range -- watch where they're putting their money if you want to know where they think the price is going to go).

Posted by: John at September 14, 2006 9:48 AM

Coal usage ain't going away, China needs it.

Posted by: Sandy P at September 14, 2006 10:21 AM

"a lush Wyoming"

Isn't that false advertising? Or do they mean "a Wyoming lush", using a picture taken inside a bar in Gillette?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 14, 2006 10:57 AM

As an alumnus of The Ohio State University, I protest the insult to Mexicans.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins at September 14, 2006 11:30 AM

You buckeyes wish you were on a par w/the Mexicans.

Posted by: MichiganBorn at September 14, 2006 4:20 PM


Four of the last five. Where does that leave you?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 14, 2006 9:18 PM