Historically, it’s been relatively easy to obtain a decent paying job in Wyoming without any more schooling than a high school diploma.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 42 percent of all jobs in the state require only a high school diploma or equivalent — among the highest percentages in the country. And, with a median wage for those jobs of about $39,000, Wyoming workers with only high school diplomas have the highest earnings among that demographic, earning close to $4,000 more than the national median wage for those workers, thanks largely to the wealth of the fossil fuel industry.
Yet, for these opportunities, Wyoming’s available workforce is shrinking — down 0.2 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to the most recent numbers from the state. And in that time, the industry that provided those good jobs showed its volatility. The mineral extraction industry lost about a third of its total workforce during the bust; nearly 9,000 positions, Wenlin Liu, the chief economist for the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis, told the Star-Tribune last year.
Looking to break out of what state officials have described as the “boom and bust” cycle of Wyoming’s economy, Gov. Matt Mead’s office has made higher education the centerpiece of its efforts to diversify the state’s economy. According to the goals set by the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) Executive Council — the Mead administration’s ambitious, long-term economic development strategy — the state aspires to increase the rate of workers with post-high school educations by 22 percent over the next two decades.
And it will do that, the plan stated, by expanding the reach of the University of Wyoming across the state — both physically and in the role it serves in both public and private life.
“The recommendation that we needed to have a larger statewide presence caught our attention right away,” University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols said in an interview. “We really are around the state an awful lot now, but we need to take it to the next level, and to take ourselves places where we don’t have a presence already.”
How will this help the economy?
External economic activities stemming from the University of Wyoming — such as spending by out-of-state students and startup businesses resulting from the school’s research — directly create roughly 2,200 jobs each year and pump millions into the state’s economy every year, according to a study done by the school in 2014. However, the recommendations laid out by the Endow Council state that the university can do more, acting as the foundation that can drive the state’s economy forward.
This will be done, the plan states, by using the university as a job creator, rather than just a job filler. Doing this not only requires providing young entrepreneurs with the means to start their own businesses here in Wyoming, but in building the educated workforce necessary to help support those industries as well. After news broke of a recent executive order from the governor mandating regular meetings between private sector industry leaders and administrators both at the secondary and post-secondary level, many are optimistic that the priorities of both Wyoming’s businesses and the state’s campuses will begin to accelerate toward a better-developed workforce.
“If we’re going to diversify our economy, we’re not going to do it through business recruitment — we’re going to through job creation and developing an entrepreneurial ecosystem,” said Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College. “We’ve all had this focus, but our work hasn’t always been aligned. We now have the focus to all move in the same direction.”
Meeting such lofty goals requires a combination of both improving Wyomingites’ access to higher education and an expansion of the institutions of higher learning themselves. This means growth both physically and in the scope of the university’s mission.
With community colleges already strategically dotting the state, Wyoming residents everywhere are anything but removed from physically accessing opportunities for higher education. The issue is the type of education they’ll receive. Working with those community colleges, Nichols said the University of Wyoming would be looking at employing a mix of both shared credits and using the existing infrastructure of the community colleges to offer the rigorous academic slate available at a larger university right where it’s needed. Incorporating the needs of the private sector in the university’s curriculum development has also been a focus, with Nichols saying that UW has been making a concerted effort to ensure all students are open to the idea of becoming job creators themselves, instilling an ethic of entrepreneurship in all its students.
With the state taking an interest in investing in that work, Nichols said she hopes tangible investments will follow — namely, in the form of the capital funding needed to get those businesses off the ground. While there is some venture capital to be found in the state, such as through the Wyoming Business Council and a recently-approved program called Wyoming: Kickstart, Nichols said the state can do more.
Small businesses need more help, she said.
“We do need startup capital,” she said. “That’s what’s lacking.”
While a significant amount of focus is placed on the college degree, the concept of continuing education — the type of vocational or certificate-based post-secondary education meant for the working class — is another element the state’s colleges and its university are looking to address. However, the incentive to encourage people to pursue a secondary certification is lacking in Wyoming, due to the lack of a need-based financial aid program in the state tailored for adults.
“We recognize there are things we need to do to increase access to education, to create a culture focused on going to college,” said Schaffer, the Laramie County Community College president. “We need to let people know there are things beyond high school education. We also know the financial barrier is one of the most significant barriers for people, and there’s no significant financial aid program for adults who want to return to school.”
Acknowledging this reality, Schaffer’s administration moved forward this year with the Rediscover LCCC initiative, a scholarship program that pays tuition and fees for up to two years in specific, high-demand degree and certificate programs. The creation of a similar program statewide would have to be performed through legislative action. But there appears to be an appetite for the program. In its first year, LCCC received 160 applicants for its 100 scholarships.
A vision for Wyoming
Right now, the scope of higher education’s role in economic development is narrow: to create immediate opportunity in the state, and to stop people from moving away in pursuit of work.
In the coming months, all institutions in the state will be developing four-year action plans to identify budget and policy actions that need to be taken by the governor’s office. Jeremiah Rieman, the coordinator of the Endow program in Mead’s office, says he doesn’t know specifics on when those plans will be produced, though he said it would be safe to anticipate the first set of action plans will be developed this year. Others, he said, could take six months to a year to produce.
While those plans may offer some immediate ideas, they may also provide long-term goals. For the University of Wyoming, those plans could be ambitious. In the university’s long-term redevelopment plan, administrators revealed ambitions to expand research and business development facilities in Laramie to grant greater incentive for businesses and talent to locate there. Down the road, Rieman said it was possible a similar, physical expansion of the university’s presence could occur, offering opportunities to other communities across the state.
“It’s going to be an iterant process,” he said. “We’re certainly going to use a lot of the existing infrastructure we have to start this process but eventually, we’re certainly going to need to build more infrastructure across the state. It’s not just about bringing in more people or building greater access — our educational institutions have an important role in developing the broader community and being an attractive element in attracting people here.”
Nichols said such an expansion could set the stage for the university to be better positioned to move the research and innovations made on campus into the marketplace at a faster rate, looking to improve on the three to five patents the university already introduces into the market each year. Other ambitions tailored to Wyoming’s economy — including its goal to become a premiere industrial research university in the fossil fuel industry — also tie hand-in-hand with the existing economic strengths of the state.
“We want to see these facilities opened up to the public to drive entrepreneurial development,” said Rieman. “We also want to see there’s a better leveraging of our public and private laboratories to benefit the private sector. When innovation happens at the university, we want to see how we can spin that out to industries who can bring those ideas to the market. We’ve lacked that in Wyoming, and we’ve seen the power that can happen in other communities. We want to light a fire under it.”
Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds