Like many regions across the country, Sweetwater County is faced with both the blessing and curse of a low unemployment rate. County economic development officials know that to keep industries operating efficiently with qualified talent, they must work hand in hand with both the business and education communities to prepare the population for an increasingly high-tech job market.
The Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition has organized a Workforce Advisory Group to address the workforce needs of both current companies and companies that might be looking to relocate to Sweetwater County. The Advisory Group consists of business and education leaders and is meant to facilitate a conversation about the type of skills required for those future jobs and to work toward solutions for ensuring students are equipped with those skills.
“In Wyoming, there is a lack of skilled workforce, as there is nationwide. This isn't anything new. But what we can do is really look at the needs of our workforce, not only today but going out five and 10 years,” says Dave Hanks, CEO, Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce, a member of the Workforce Advisory Group.
Hanks says the chamber and the SEDC are already working with the region’s higher education institutions to ensure curricula are meeting the current needs of the business community.
“We’ve worked with Western Wyoming Community College very closely. The college has a great training-to-work program that meets our industry's needs. A company will come in and say, ‘we need this training, and we need these skill sets,’ and the college will develop a program that will give students those skills,” Hanks says.
Charting the Right (Career) Path
The problem, Hanks says, is that this approach to workforce development is reactive rather than proactive. He says he wants to be able to predict what skills or training the workforce will require several years in the future and then start preparing students for those jobs as early as junior high school.
“We need to be thinking about what the future workforce looks like, so that we can get into the junior high and high school level,” he says. “The high school has academy programs that focus curriculum around certain career paths. Students also have access to internships and mentoring and can proceed along career paths into a two-year or four-year degree. We want to expand those types of programs.”
Every other spring, the Rock Springs Chamber also hosts Southwest Wyoming Resource Rendezvous, a region-wide career show for middle school students, which brings in companies and nonprofit organizations from some 40 industry sectors to discuss the various types of career paths available within each industry.
“Take the trona mines, for example. Students may not realize they can work in the trona industry without being a miner. They could be a master diesel mechanic or an engineer. They could be an employee who works in human resources or an employee in the environmental compliance area or working in the lab,” Hanks says.
Hanks says directing students to different career paths within the region’s industry sector is a critical part of workforce development strategy.
“Being the least populated state in the nation, our best recruitment tool is to recruit locally. If we recruit locally, our retention rate is three times what it is if we bring somebody in from the outside,” he says. “If we can have a homegrown workforce that we've started training in junior high through high school and college, we're going to have a lot better success and a much higher retention of those employees in our area.”