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Economic diversification is tricky, but some in Wyoming are ready to grow and change

Business leaders discuss challenges during the recent Governor's Business Forum
Bob Beck
Wyoming Public Radio
Business leaders discuss challenges during the recent Governor's Business Forum

Due to the regular boom and bust cycles in the state and Wyoming's continued struggle to attract and retain younger workers—the never-ending discussion on the need to diversify the state economy continues.

While citizens and public officials often discuss the need to diversify, those who are actually in the business world say it's not that easy. Michelle Butler, the Chief Operating Officer at EMIT Technologies in Sheridan, noted during a gathering at the Governor's Business Forum that it's harder than it looks.

"I mean, if I look back over, we've spent the last 20 months aggressively trying to diversify. And I think if I were to summarize it, it's expensive," said Butler.

Butler is talking about businesses like EMIT that are trying to grow and do more things. Of course, that also takes more employees, which is another challenge that has heightened during the pandemic.

"One of the things that we struggle with, we've got a lot of entry-level positions that we'll do on the job training for, but those are entry-level positions starting at $18 an hour, but then you have organizations like Walmart and McDonald's and gas stations that are paying more than that," said Butler. "And so how Wyoming businesses can recruit that talent that wants to work, just will remain challenging."

Finding younger employees has been a focus in the state for many years, but there's been limited success. Younger people who've been surveyed across the state say they are looking for fulfilling work, with solid mentoring and a good work-life balance. But there are other factors as well. Lucas Fralick is one of those young workers who appreciates the efforts of some.

"I think that's the key behind all of it is, we want young people to feel welcome in Wyoming," said Fralick. "And I don't know [if] we see that. And I think, good intentions, people are moving in that direction, but something's missing."

Fralick, who's from Gillette, said community attitudes can play a role. He gave an example from his hometown.

"I think that's the key behind all of it is, we want young people to feel welcome in Wyoming. And I don't know [if]we see that. And I think, good intentions, people are moving in that direction, but something's missing."

"There's been an awful lot of anti-LGBTQtype things going on. And that's not business-related. But it definitely impacts business, right? Especially when it comes to keeping people around like people don't want to live in a community with all that," added Fralick.

Even though that's been just a small part of the community, Fralick said it makes a difference.

But so does the type of opportunity. One young entrepreneur said he believes there are jobs that are very attractive, like those his company offers. Grayson Buckingham is the CEO of DISA Technologies in Casper. His business separates valuable minerals from waste material. They've been in business since 2018 and finding applicants has not been a problem. He noted that they recently had 100 applicants for a process engineer position.

"And I think people want to move to Wyoming given everything that's happened recently, with the pandemic, they want to be part of new innovative companies where they feel valued," said Buckingham. "A lot of the applicants had said that they were working in larger corporations, and they want to work somewhere that's more agile, more flexible and adaptive."

Buckingham said the people they hire are excited that his company turns a liability into an asset. He said those types of environmental jobs can be fulfilling.

The Trihydro Corporation in Laramie has watched its environmental engineering and consulting business grow in recent years and that figures to continue. President and CEO Kurt Tuggle said they are very optimistic about their future and with climate concerns continuing to grow, that's going to be a boon for environmental-related companies.

A man smiling in a bright green shirt with black-rimmed glasses, holding a pen signing paperwork
Courtesy TriHydro
Kurt Tuggle

"That diversification for us, it's going to be looking at new energy developments, a new focus on the environment, which, you're seeing globally, and how companies and businesses can work towards developing solutions in the future," said Tuggle.

Tuggle said they have little trouble finding people that want to work in their type of business and he believes that jobs that relate to the environment are going to be part of Wyoming's future.

But whether it's environmental, construction or even energy-related, one longtime business person in Wyoming believes that finding successful entrepreneurs and helping them grow is the key.

L and H Industrial has been in Gillette for almost 60 years. President Mike Wandler said he'd like to see the state focus on successful entrepreneurs.

"Figure out what skills and abilities they have. And it's got to be entrepreneurs that are like-minded, that want to innovate and grow, and figure out what they want to grow in," said Wandler.

At the Governor's Business Forum most believed that environmental and technological jobs that are fulfilling will attract young people and have the best chance at diversifying the economy. Still, others believe that helping long-time businesses do more is the best approach.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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