Lots of optimism was expressed at the March 6 Central Wyoming Economic Forecast luncheon sponsored by the Wyoming Business Report.
Anne Alexander, an economist and associate provost at the University of Wyoming, was the featured speaker. She welcomed panelists who described the economy with reference to their own fields of expertise.
Alexander used a fast-moving PowerPoint presentation to look at what is happening worldwide, nationally and in Wyoming.
“There’s tailwinds and headwinds in the economy,” Alexander said. “While unemployment is low locally and nationally, we still need to expand the workforce.” She noted that recession risks are accelerating, but international trade could be a trigger causing a recession.
“Urban job creation is moving up, while rural job growth is not as good,” Alexander said. She noted that the federal government’s partial shutdown hurt the economy by about $3 billion; the biggest issue as far as business goes was the lack of data that normally flows from the federal government. She said the trade war hurt the U.S. as other countries retaliated when we added tariffs to imports.
“Bond market risks are emerging as companies try to raise capital; there’s a lot of corporate debt,” Alexander said. She suggested that the impact of the 2017 tax cuts gave the Gross Domestic Product a 1 percent bump that will likely dissipate. And another headwind is the high rate of government debt and the resulting cost of interest on the U.S. economy.
In Wyoming, Alexander noted that employment dipped from 300,000 to 275,000. This is partly attributed to higher technology expansion in the oil and gas industry, which suggests fewer workers are needed.
Alexander’s slide show illustrated areas of the economy that are seeing greatly increased use of robotic equipment; that means fewer humans are on the assembly lines, but more people are needed with the technological skills to design and build robots.
She also noted that Wyoming has the third-most volatile tax structure in the U.S., with nearly 33 percent of the state’s revenue coming from severance taxes, 15 percent from property taxes and 13 percent from sales and use taxes.
A bit of good news was illustrated by the fact that central Wyoming’s unemployment rate was only 4.3 percent in December. Alexander pointed to statewide initiatives such as ENDOW, an ambitious effort to diversify the economy and increase jobs throughout the state. The effort is exploring new markets for Wyoming products and is working to develop new trade partnerships.
Panelists included Charles Walsh, CEO of the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance and Forward Casper; Tad True, representing the pipeline division of the True Companies; Michele Chulick, president and CEO of Wyoming Medical Center; and Jarad Stack, an entrepreneur and manager of the Wyoming Technology and Business Center, central Wyoming’s business incubator.
Alexander posed a question to the panel: “What do you see as 2019 opportunities and investments?”
Walsh said his organization is focusing on two “vertical” challenges: medical technology and the energy industry.
“But we believe there are also opportunities in other sectors, such as participating in the upgrade of the missile defense system,” he said. “Some 50 unused missile silos need to be overhauled, retrofitted and made ready to house the next generation of ICBMs.”
He noted that a variety of skilled workers – such as welders, machinists and concrete workers – will be needed for the silo upgrades alone. He said CAEDA is working on other aerospace and defense opportunities.
Chulick said, “We have an absolute jewel in the Wyoming Medical Center; it is an amazing place with tremendous opportunities to expand across the state.” She added that WMC works hard to provide tertiary care to patients across Wyoming.
“We’re establishing telehealth partnerships with seven smaller hospitals to help diagnose and treat stroke victims. And the high cost of health care in Wyoming comes because of the low population,” she said.
Stack said, “I’m really bullish for Casper’s economic potential.” He stated that the next generation of millennials will be driving the economy here and elsewhere. “Casper offers the new generation many things they want” in terms of good schools, quality of life and many other amenities, he said.
Other discussions looked at qualifying people in fields such as scrub technicians, who now have to go to Laramie for training. WMC is talking to Casper College and others to see if these skills can be taught in Casper. And there were discussions about creating jobs that will bring people back to Wyoming.
Nearly 90 people attended the annual luncheon.