A southwest Wyoming community college preps for the expanding energy industry
Guitar strums echo down a long hallway at Western Wyoming Community College (WWCC) in Rock Springs.
But it is not part of a music class, but rather two friends – a teacher and former student – jamming in the Manufacturing and Industry Department.
“We used to do this every lunch hour back when he was going to school,” said Rick Paravicini, a WWCC welding instructor.
Dalton Austin graduated from Western last year. He is a fresh faced 22-year-old with a full time job as a welder in nearby Green River. Austin grew up in Wyoming and always hoped to stay.
“I decided to go to college to learn a trade of some sort,” he said. “And this is where I've stayed. And this is where I'll be for a long time.”
The youth are leaving, but the jobs are coming
In a way, Austin has bucked the system.
Data shows that over the last ten years, about half of Wyoming high school graduates left the state, and many say it is because of a lack of opportunity.
Rock Springs’ economy has long been driven by the nearby coal plants and natural gas fields – neither of which are booming like they had 10 to 20 years ago.
But there are jobs opening up in other energy sectors, like the nuclear power plant that is being built at a former coal plant in Kemmerer. It is expected to create 2,000 jobs, including welders, mechanics, plant operators and electricians.
“We have the opportunity at the ground level, obviously to kind of help shape what that workforce looks like,” said Amy Murphy, WWCC dean of outreach and workforce development.
Based on the success of the Kemmerer plant, it is possible that five more could come to the region.
Murphy said there is an anticipated need for skilled blue collar workers, and WWCC is planning ahead by offering opportunities for young Wyomingites to stay in the state. They are doing this by investing in existing programs like welding and diesel mechanics, but also adding new ones.
“What industry wants is our students to get the training here and stay in Wyoming,” she said.
Molding programs to fit industry needs
WWCC actually teamed up with Rocky Mountain Power and the state of Wyoming to create a powerline technology program this past fall – it is the only one in the state. It preps students to get apprenticeships to become a journeyman that works on powerlines. They can make upwards of $200,000 annually.
Carlton Dewick, WWCC School of Manufacturing and Industrial Technology chair, helped get the powerline program off the ground. On a tour, he pointed to a tan building.
“This used to be the oil and gas building,” Dewick said. “It's on hiatus. We put the powerline program in there.”
He said it is because of demand – linesmen are needed now and more will likely be needed with the opening of the nuclear plant. The oil and gas program funneled students into that industry but was paused in 2020.
“Every single power utility company I know across the country right now is screaming for guys,” Lance Caldwell, the powerline technology instructor, said.
Just in Wyoming, Rocky Mountain Power has 39 job openings – some of which have $15,000 sign on bonuses. Caldwell said that is pretty unusual, and he hopes some of his students can fill that need.
“The whole industry for a long time had plenty of people doing the job and all those people they kind of forgot. They have a whole generation about my age that's about to retire all at the same time,” said Caldwell, who worked in the industry for 34 years. “And the market is going to be very, very short of training qualified people.”
Hagan Jones, who grew up in Farson, will finish up the powerline program this spring. He said he always wanted to be a journeyman and stay in Wyoming, but for a while, he did not think he could do both.
“I was gonna go to Idaho and then these guys opened it up and I was like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna stay here and so I could stay here,’” said Jones.
There are six other young men in the class with similar stories to Jones. Several times a week they practice climbing wooden poles that are the height of about a four story building. They use heavy ropes and spiked shoes, and in the winter, are typically climbing in sub-zero temperatures. It simulates a real life scenario in Wyoming.
Jones said the first time climbing power poles was pretty scary.
“Because if you look, as the higher [you are] the more the pole moves as you're climbing,” he said. “When you're moving, it's not that bad. It’s just when you stop and you can feel your pole rock a little bit. It's nerve wracking.”
But he loves it now. When Jones graduates this spring, he is hoping to get an apprenticeship in Rock Springs and make a life in Wyoming.
Supporting the industry that’s going to stay
Getting a full time job and staying in Wyoming is something Dalton Austin, the former student and now welder, has been able to do. He said he expects with the building of the nuclear facility for only more jobs to open up.
“So, it would be super useful to have some type of trade that'll get you into that field,” he said.
And his former welding teacher, Rick Parvacini, agreed. In fact, he has seen it first-hand. Paravicini used to work in the oilfield, but now he teaches welding full time.
“Since the oil fields gone away, for the most part, we kind of had to change the way we do things to kind of support the industry that's gonna stay around for a while,” Paravicini said.
As far as nuclear goes, Paravicini said that could be inspecting and testing welds at site and even in-house at WWCC.
Even though he and Austin had to get back to their jobs – welding and teaching welding – they wanted to play one more song, an old country tune by Ray Price called ‘Crazy Arms.’