There’s an understandable reflex to clamp down on government spending during a sluggish economy. After all, the slowdown in Wyoming’s energy industry means fewer dollars for state government. Most of the time, it doesn’t make sense to propose new programs at a time of cuts and attrition.
But without some significant changes to its economy, Wyoming will continue to be tied to the booms and busts of the energy industry. Economic diversification is needed, which requires a skilled workforce. Without one, all of the plans and proposals to attract new businesses and industries will be for naught.
Thankfully, Gov. Matt Mead and a group of lawmakers recognize this fact. The legislators are developing a workforce training package worth tens of millions of dollars. Mead told reporters last week that he expects the package will pass when lawmakers convene in February for the budget session.
Little about the bill has been made public because it remains under development, but Mead did say he expects it will involve a substantial amount of money. While that might make for a tough sell, the training package is essential to the state’s economic recovery and long-term health.
“There is a lot of things that look counterintuitive that will get us where we need,” he said.
We agree. Wyoming officials have long talked about the need to diversify the state’s economy. But for this latest effort to succeed where others have failed, lawmakers must first clear away the barriers to success. The primary obstacle, according to a recent report by a group working to diversify Wyoming’s economy, is the lack of workforce.
That workforce, according to the report, isn’t ready to support a transition from the energy industry into other sectors that haven’t traditionally served as major economic drivers. To be clear, this is not a criticism of workers. They developed the skills necessary to succeed in Wyoming’s oil fields, coal mines and supporting services.
But many economists believe the energy industry won’t soon return to the heights it enjoyed in the past. That means it’s imperative to begin training the state’s workforce now, even amid a downturn in revenue.
We’re heartened that a growing number of our state’s leaders appear to recognize this fact. Senate President Eli Bebout has a track record of pushing for cuts to address the state’s fiscal challenges. But even he expressed support for spending on workforce training, noting that lawmakers “have to take a 30,000-foot view,” because of its potential to provide jobs and improve our economy.
When the budget session convenes, there will almost certainly be some lawmakers who disagree. We expect some to insist on holding the line against any new spending as long as state revenues are down. That would be a mistake. For the state’s long-term health, we need a robust economy that relies less on the energy industry to carry the load. And to accomplish that, we need to train the workers of tomorrow today.