Multiple studies over the years have identified manufacturing as an ideal economic development target for our part of Wyoming. It isn’t that experts want to move huge, smokestack factory manufacturing to our state, but instead, we are a good fit for what is best described as niche, light or advanced manufacturing.
Small firms, with employment of a half dozen to dozens, with the potential to grow, fit into Wyoming’s economy. Typically, these firms make precision, custom or semi-custom products, in small batches.
Wyoming is not unique in this regard. For years America “off-shored” its manufacturing, sending jobs south to Mexico and Central America, or overseas to Asia. In recent years, that trend has reversed with a trend to “onshoring,” or bringing home the work that involves smaller manufacturing batches, more precise work and faster turnaround.
For remote areas like ours, the trend got a boost by the deregulation of the trucking industry. Before that, manufacturers tended to huddle close to the cheapest form of transportation — waterways. Truck deregulation lowered transportation costs as a percent of the final total price of a product, enabling companies to consider inland locations.
Because of the energy industry, we already have firms that engage in custom repair and fabrication. As those firms seek to diversify their product base, they expand beyond energy, and in doing so, help diversify the local job base.
Light, niche manufacturing was also identified as a good fit for our region because we had some firms that had spontaneously arisen in that sector. The idea, then, is to encourage that natural growth and to help more firms start business here, or to relocate here.
Mostly, though, manufacturing is an ideal economic development goal because it just seems that making things is a natural fit for Wyoming. There is a hands on, do-it-yourself flavor to life in a rural town. Ranch life, too, is like that. Shop class is a fixture of local high school life, with solid programs that impart the skills needed in manufacturing.
Finally, light, niche manufacturing is a good fit for this area because of Northern Wyoming Community College. With a presence in Sheridan, Johnson and Campbell counties, “Sheridan College” has strong programs in machining and welding. That has been encouraged by people of vision, such as the late Tom Kinnison, the boards of Whitney and other local foundations, and the college trustees, executive leaders and faculty.
Today, there are hundreds of light manufacturing jobs in Sheridan and Johnson counties. Like manufacturing nationwide, these firms suffer a lack of skilled labor.
Lacking a pool of local, qualified applicants these firms are forced to recruit throughout Wyoming and in surrounding states.
These are good paying jobs and could be filled by many local folks, if only they had the necessary training.
What options are available to make that training available to our citizens, and especially those who would like to upgrade their skills to fill these in-demand positions? That will be the subject of my next column.
Dave Kinskey represents Wyoming Senate District 22, which consists of Johnson County and eastern Sheridan County. A businessperson and former mayor of Sheridan, Kinskey can be reached at email@example.com or 307-751-6428.