WRIGHT, WYO. — When Zeb and Sharon Goodrich look out their front door these days, they see antelope, sweeping treeless plains, and dozens of jack rabbits – a far cry from the view at their previous home in Lake Odessa, Mich.
"I miss the trees," Mr. Goodrich admits. "I was in shock when I [saw] how many trees there weren't." On the other hand, he likes that "you feel like you have room to breathe."
More important: He has good work, and lots of it.
Goodrich's job as a welder for a mine- services company pays far better than the welding he was doing back in Michigan, especially when he factors in the opportunity for overtime. And unlike the jobs in Michigan, it's not in danger of disappearing any time soon.
The Goodriches are at the vanguard of a small, new migration westward. As a result of aggressive recruiting on the part of job-rich and labor-poor Wyoming – and their family's willingness to leave roots and relatives behind in search of a more secure future – Zeb, Sharon, and their two young boys moved more than 1,000 miles this spring to a region in the throes of an oil, gas, and coal boom.
Employers in Wyoming are hoping that many more follow. For nearly a year, several county economic development councils and companies have targeted Michigan, with its large pool of skilled blue-collar labor and dwindling jobs, to try and fill the state's thousands of job openings. They've conducted three job fairs and placed a huge billboard outside Flint, Mich: "Live and Work in Wyoming!" And they're having some success.
"The Michigan folks are really fitting in," says Ruth Benson, director of the Campbell County Economic Development Corporation, just back from a recent recruiting trip.
Few of the Michiganders who move let Ms. Benson know they've done so, but she knows of at least 65 who have moved to her county in recent months, and hears of many more. Her county's website, www.jobswyoming.net, has been getting thousands of hits. "It's not for everyone," she says of the move, "but it's good for some."
Campbell County – which produces more than 35 percent of the coal used for the nation's electricity – is filled with evidence of the boom. Lines of trucks and cars – especially at shift changes – wind through roads in an otherwise barren landscape. Gas wells dot scrubland near the highway. Houses are going up all over.
Unemployment in the county is 1.7 percent – compared with 3.6 percent in the state and 7.1 percent in Michigan. And the mineral industry has given Wyoming a budget surplus of nearly $2 billion – evidence of which is seen in the new schools, civic centers, and infrastructure springing up.
In tiny Wright, for instance, where the Goodriches live, the population of 1,500 has four or five new playgrounds, a stocked fishing pond for kids, a new library, and a recreation center with an indoor pool.
"They're not burning the desk to heat the school," Zeb says with a laugh.
Such a boom has a downside too, though, as many families learn when they try to find a place to live – especially if they also need to sell a home in a depressed market like Michigan's.
The growing population has sent housing prices soaring, and many newcomers have to wait months just to find a place that's available. Motels are filled with laborers, and many companies need to offer temporary housing to lure workers. The lower-paying service sector has also had a hard time finding and keeping workers, with so many better-paying jobs available.
Benson is hoping that once the county is able to lure more skilled workers for the high-paying energy-related jobs, their "trailing spouses" will follow, and hopefully fill some of the many service and part-time positions. Sharon, for instance, has already bought a day-care center in Wright, which serves 51 kids.
She's enjoying her work, especially since it keeps her with 4-year-old Zeb Jr. and 3-year-old Jacob.
But the main change for the better has been for her husband. Back in Michigan, Zeb was doing welding on water heaters, bored by the monotonous work and making some $30,000 to $40,000 a year. Now, he works at P&H MinePro Services, repairing and building the massive coal mining equipment. The only thing that keeps him from overtime is the need to spend time with his family, and he loves the work – even when it means 14-hour nighttime shifts.
"I call my friends and ask how their job is, and then say, 'Oh, I worked on the world's largest electric shovel last night,' " he says, grinning. "It's not hard to make six figures here if you don't mind working."
He remembers an ethanol plant back in Michigan that got 10,000 applications for 35 jobs. Here, he jokes, "you've got 35 people applying for the 10,000 jobs."
Still, despite his best efforts, none of his friends have followed him. And even Benson admits it can be an uphill struggle to get people to leave their extended families to come to an area they may never have heard of.
When she and officials in several other counties first realized what a labor shortage they had, they tried recruiting from Texas and the Gulf states, encouraging those displaced by hurricane Katrina to move to Wyoming.
"It was late fall, and they'd call and ask about the weather and all but hang up on you," she remembers.
Michigan, with its own tough winters and outdoorsman culture, has been a better fit, but it's still a challenge. Also, the area's employers don't want just any workers – they need heavy equipment operators, electricians, welders, mechanics, and other skilled laborers.
The growing population, though, is creating some need for a few other professions too. Richard Andriaens, Gillette's chief of police, moved here from Royal Oak, Mich., nearly two years ago. Budget cuts forced him to take an early retirement from the police department there, and as he scanned Michigan for police chief openings, he happened across an advertisement for Gillette, Campbell County's largest town.
"I thought, if we're going to move an hour, why not 20 hours?" he remembers. Since then, he's brought three more Michiganders to the department, and is going back on another recruiting trip in November.
The lack of shopping has been a bit tough for his wife, but mostly he says it's been a welcome change.
"I used to commute to work with half the number of people in this entire state," he says. His oldest son shot his first antelope and mule deer a few weeks ago, and his other three kids have all adapted quickly. "The best kept secret out here is the weather," he laughs.
As with the Goodriches, Chief Andriaens says the hardest part has been being away from family, but he's never looked back.
"I'm from a blue-collar family, and the blue-collar orientation makes you set strong roots," he says. "But if you have even a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, then the opportunities here are just incredible."