TORRINGTON — There’s good news and then there’s bad news. The good news is the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services reported last week the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell significantly from 4.7 percent in February to 4.5 percent in March, which is a percentage point lower than it was in March 2016. Even better news is Goshen County’s unemployment rate is 3.0 percent, trailing only Teton County at 2.7 percent.
But Wyoming’s shrinking unemployment rate comes at a cost – a decreasing population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Wyoming’s population fell to 585,501 in July 2016, a decrease of 1,054 people, or 0.2 percent, marking the first time since 1990 the state’s population
Unfortunately, Goshen County was also a leader in this category, losing 1.5 percent of its total population between July 2015 and July 2016.
There are two factors contributing to population change. The first is the natural change, births minus deaths. The second is net migration, those coming in minus those leaving.
“Migration is mostly driven by changes in employment, which is particularly true for Wyoming,” said Dr. Wenlin Liu, chief economist with State of Wyoming, Economic Analysis Division. “People tend to move to areas where jobs are available, or conversely, may leave the areas where employment opportunities become limited.”
Wyoming’s loss of 12,090 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2016 compared the fourth quarter of 2015 supports Liu’s theory people are leaving the state because the jobs are leaving the state.
Governor Matt Mead answered questions Wednesday about the job situation in the Cowboy State and what can be done to stop the employment exodus.
When does the bleeding stop? What is your office and the legislature doing to stop the flow? Can it be stopped?
It’s not just young people (leaving the state) which has always been a challenge, but its also people who have always worked here, people in their 40s and 50s that because of economic changes can’t make a go of it. So it is a big challenge for the state, especially when you start off as the least populated state in the country.
But we have to be more proactive than saying we’re going to leave our future in the hands of the stock markets and whoever happens to be president. So I asked the legislature for some help with regard to economic development. That was a bit of a challenge since they wanted to cut the Wyoming Business Council again, which would have been 37 percent in just a few short years.
I know it is tough when you’re facing cuts, but we still need to engage in economic development. So I vetoed (those cuts) and the senate didn’t override that, which I was pleased about. The good news was that the legislature also gave us the opportunity for some large loans to entice companied to come
I think the most important thing is the ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) initiative, that I announced last November. It is a 20 year plan to diversify our economy. Diversification will do three things, it will diversify our revenue, it will bring predictability (to the budget) and it will help keep our young people in the state. We love our minerals, we love or agriculture and we love our tourism, but we need to provide more opportunity for our young people.
The initiative is not only going to look at what industries we have here that we can help and what industries can we recruit, but it is also going to look at workforce. Workforce is a big concern.
Last year, we had an international company we were actively recruiting and who really wanted to come to Wyoming, but they were concerned we could not meet their workforce needs. They needed a lot of people to work and they had gone other places that could not meet their workforce needs. So developing our workforce will be part of ENDOW.
How does the state go about developing a skilled workforce that will draw the interest of diversified businesses?
Can we provide 20 skilled workers, yes we can, but can we provide 500? The answer to that is we can’t. That’s why I think career technical education in high school and our community colleges will need to play an even bigger role in developing a skilled workforce.
One of the real gems we have in Wyoming is our community colleges because not only can they provide that type of training, but they can do so rapidly.
People want to move their businesses to Wyoming because of the low taxes, the work ethic, the quality of life, and because of our education, but then we don’t have the trained people to close the deal and we need to reverse that trend.
With a hard state hiring freeze taking affect and the university and school districts looking at staff cuts, how does the battle over when and how much to tap into the rainy day fund play in drawing businesses to the state?
If we are asking a company to buy into Wyoming one of the best indicators for that company to whether or not they should do that is are we investing in ourselves? Do we believe in ourselves?
Lets say we’re investing the rainy day fund in some company in some country. What we’re really saying is that we’re believe we are going to get a better return there than investing in our own education, our own roads, our infrastructure, our broadband and our economic development. I disagree with that. I just think it is hard to find a better investment than your own state, especially Wyoming.
This has been an ongoing discussion with myself and the legislature for several years now and it is my belief that it is raining. And while the legislature continues to make cuts, the rainy day fund continues to grow. And I think that is a
On top of that it’s not like we haven’t been conservative. There are fewer people in state government than when I took over, the rainy day fund is about doubled since I took over and we’ve reduced the amount of rules by about 30 percent since I took over. We’ve been very conservative on the government side. But you have to have roads, bridges and investment in education.
Education, I’ve been told is the best thing you can do for economic development because it provides a workforce, it provides that ultimate commitment to companies that are here and thinking about coming here that you are taking the
If agriculture, minerals and tourism are the three legs of Wyoming’s current economic base, what so you see being the fourth leg, the one that ENDOW is supposed to identify and develop?
Technology. And technology in its broadest sense. We’ve seen some success with that, but to me we need technology to, one, solve rural problems with telemedicine, tele-education and telecommuting. Second, it is an attraction to business. The businesswoman that spends five days in Chicago and two days in Wyoming, we can reverse that with connectivity and the promise you can do business from any of the wonderful small towns anywhere in Wyoming.
Technology can also help us with minerals. It’s an over simplification, but Wyoming is largely a dig and ship state, where we dig and then ship our minerals downstream to another state or another country and they add value to it. We want to add value to those products not only in terms of what you can make with them but also in terms of innovation and technology.
We should be thinking about technology because the younger generation has a higher expectation of tech and connectivity and if we don’t have it we won’t be able to keep them. Its where the future lies.
A few weeks ago we went to Houston to the First robotics competition where they had 22,000 competitors from around the world. Wyoming had a team from Powell, who did very well. But when you look around and see schools like Stanford and MIT there recruiting these kids, I want to see a robotics team from every high school in Wyoming competing.
But I asked the legislature for $1,000 for every school district to develop a First Robotics, or similar program, and it was rejected. What we usually get push back on with regard to tech education in the high school is the expensive of it. And it is expensive. But you have look at what it costs if you don’t do it; what kind of training do you have to provide later on in life, how much welfare will need to be provided and how much funding will the department of corrections need when we send out people without a job or the skills to get a job.
One argument against providing technological education like you are talking about is that young people will continue to leave the state because those tech jobs aren’t here, so we get nothing or very little for our investment.
You have to start with education. You can’t say to companies once you get here then we’ll start focusing on education. Our responsibility, even if the student leaves the state, and too many of them do, is we still want that student to have a good life because that student is somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter.
So one of the programs we started about two years ago is Wyoming Grown that connects individuals who have a desire to return to Wyoming with companies here actively recruiting. They get a letter from me saying we want you back and there is a job they may be
Next year will be your last legislative session, what do expect for the 2018 session?
There’s no question it’s going to be a tough one. It’s going to be a budget session so it may be tougher than this last
We’ve got to find solutions for education and still critical for me is economic development, funding the business council and funding local governments. And we will have to be looking at the rainy day fund. Again that is not a fund just to ignore, so the debate will be what is the right amount to take out of the fund.
I want Wyoming, even during these tough times, to be open for business and we are going to continue moving forward because we can’t have a message as a state that we’re going to be open for five years and then close up. If you want to keep young people in the state, if you want to keep businesses in the state, they have to know that the long term trend line is that we are going to keep plugging along, keep building and keep growing, and do a better job of taking care of our citizens.