SHERIDAN — While Wyoming’s population of youth has grown slightly in recent years, there are still few young people living and working in the state.
Experts and state representatives say efforts to retain and recruit young people should focus on expanding opportunities within the state, rendering the decision to leave a choice, not a necessity.
According to an article published earlier this year by Governing Magazine, which compared census data from 2010 with 2016 estimates, Wyoming ranked 23rd in the U.S. in its number of millennials (ages 16-35) and 31st in its population of Generation X individuals (ages 36 –51).
From 2010 to the 2016 estimate, Wyoming saw a 2.4 percent increase in millennials, compared to Colorado’s 13.8 percent and North Dakota’s 18 percent increases.
While Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota all saw a positive percent change in their Generation X population, Wyoming saw a -0.7 percent change.
One reason for young people leaving or not coming to Wyoming is the lack of opportunities, especially when compared to surrounding states.
Wyoming Department of Administration and Information Economic Analysis Division principal economist Dr. Wenlin Liu, Ph.D. said once young people become unemployed they stop looking for a job in the state. While the national economy was in a recession around 2009, today it’s different, making it difficult for Wyoming’s job market to compete with states offering more opportunities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 the national unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent, where in September 2017 it was at 4.2 percent.
Wyoming’s proximity to two states with the lowest unemployment doesn’t help, either.
While Wyoming’s unemployment rate is at about 4 percent, down from 5.1 percent in 2016, the BLS reported in September that North Dakota had the lowest rate, at 2.4 percent. Colorado followed with 2.5 percent.
A low unemployment rate often means fewer applicants for jobs and more opportunities for job seekers, which can lead to economic growth.
Additionally, places like Colorado have a larger labor force, market and metro area, which attracts young people.
Neighboring states Utah and Idaho also ranked near or at the top in the country for private job growth and total job growth.
Another challenge for young people is that Wyoming’s industries often require experience and favor seniority over youth.
Nito Serna grew up in Ranchester and currently lives in Los Angeles freelancing as a cameraman on films such as “Short Term 12,” and “The Glass Castle.”
Before his career shift to the film industry, Serna worked for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in Sheridan. Serna said he was hired out and had to travel around to gain experience and time under his belt before he was able to come home and work in Sheridan.
“Sheridan’s kind of a high seniority area,” Serna said, adding most people working there at the time had 15 to 20 years of seniority. “So we were kind of bouncing back and forth, I think I even had to go as far as Arizona to work for a few years, and then was able to come back and hold Sheridan.”
State Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, said the largest problem in regards to retaining youth in the state is underemployment.
“People who work at jobs that pay far less than what their background training or education enables them to do,” Kinskey said. “And it should not be as big of a financial sacrifice as it is for some to say ‘I’m going to make my home in Sheridan.’”
Job opportunities aren’t the only problem in Wyoming. Young people also have a hard time finding a home in the Sheridan area.
Summit Reality Realtor Shauna Hernandez said in the last year, 145 properties have been sold in the city limits in the $100,000 to $200,000 range. While statistically the average time a home in this range would stay on the market for is 60 days, she said that number is too high.
“It’s really important to note that many of these houses usually sell the first week on the market,” Hernandez said, adding that homes in this price point often have competing offers within the first two days.
She said a structurally sound home with surface updates, or “lipstick updates,” in this price range will typically sell within three days.
The competition for affordable housing can keep some young people, and their families, from staying in the area or relocating here.
Additionally, some young people find that Sheridan doesn’t have progressive social attitudes and lacks acceptance and diversity.
During the Sheridan City Council meeting Oct. 16 where z non-discrimination resolution was passed, Amber Hanson spoke about her two gay daughters and their experiences with discrimination.
She said her daughters don’t feel like people in Sheridan care, including the city and peers. She said her daughters have experienced discrimination, including death threats.
“They’re counting down the days until they can leave this town, I’m not joking,” Hanson said. “They, and all of their close friends all say they do not want to live someplace where they are not welcome.”
In a recent letter, Sheridan resident Jane Wohl urged Mayor Roger Miller to support the LGBT non-discrimination resolution so her daughter and her daughter’s family would be able to return to the state.
“My daughter and her spouse cannot comfortably live in Wyoming, or in Sheridan with their children because they do not have the legal protections afforded to others,” Wohl said in her letter.
But, Kinskey said, despite all the challenges, Sheridan is better off than other parts of the state. Sheridan currently has around 250 light manufacturing jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago and a hidden tech sector, made up of professionals working from home and shared offices.
Kinskey said keeping Wyoming’s youth in the state starts with education and providing opportunities.
“We’re making progress and we just need to keep after it…with a sense of urgency, a real sense of urgency,” Kinskey said.