SHERIDAN — The $11.369 million donation last week by Whitney Benefits to support local education plays into a larger, ongoing effort by public and private organizations across the state to have more educated people working in a variety of jobs.
The money will support 18 full-time jobs and one seasonal job at Sheridan College in several programs. It will also fund computer science courses at the three Sheridan County school districts.
Sheridan College President Paul Young said funding — which begins July 1 — will be about even over the next seven years. The additional instructing positions at Sheridan College should result in higher enrollment. For example, Young said the donation could lead to a 50 percent increase in welding students.
Ideally, the donation will provide a better pipeline of trained workers for technical companies in the area like Weatherby, VacuTech, EMIT Technologies and L&H Industrial.
“The (job) demand that Weatherby is going to create isn’t just for the initial startup,” Young said.
“One of the reasons Weatherby is moving is they want to grow and expand — and I think there’s no question they are going to grow and expand in Wyoming — and they’re going to need additional workers over time to do that.”
Moreover, two of the new positions are for the College Success Program, which focuses on student retention. The college hopes that paying for full-time staffers to help students stay in school instead of dropping out will lead to higher graduation rates in an array of programs.
Whitney Benefits board President Tom Kinnison said conversations about the donation began about a year ago with the purpose of enhancing some of the college programs so graduates could more easily move into high-paying jobs like in welding, machine tool technology, computer science and diesel mechanics.
“Hopefully, Wyoming will start recognizing how important it is [to] enhance education,” Kinnison said. “Whitney can help with the education part, but there’s only so much. We need a lot of help from a lot of people, foundations and companies if we’re going to do this right.”
In that vein, Young said Sheridan College and other Wyoming community colleges have been talking with state agencies like the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) taskforce and the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services about areas of emphasis — computer science, for example — to attract companies to Wyoming down the road.
“The positions which are being added in computer coding — that’s a new area for us, and it’s a new partnership with our K-12 partners in school districts 1, 2 and 3,” Young said. “There’s some demand in the region right now, but the idea is that we’re going to try to produce a workforce that’s here and present so a company could relocate.”
Gov. Matt Mead has emphasized job variety in recent years, which he reiterated at the Weatherby groundbreaking last month in Sheridan.
“I think of what it means in terms of jobs, diversity and economic development, and I’m just thrilled,” Mead said on April 6.
Mead’s main attempt to decrease the state’s economic reliance on the mining industry is establishing ENDOW, which released its initial recommendations Dec. 31, 2017. They included improving air service and broadband in the state and organizing a network for Wyoming entrepreneurs. A 20-year comprehensive economic diversification strategy from the ENDOW Executive Council is due Aug. 1.
Jerimiah Rieman, ENDOW coordinator and director of economic diversification strategy and initiatives, said Whitney Benefits’ donation should help Wyoming with the goals set by Mead for 67 percent of Wyoming’s working age population to hold a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025 and 82 percent by 2040. Rieman said that number currently stands at around 45 percent and will take sustained, widespread effort to accomplish.
In addition to making it easier for high school students to transition into college and then into a career, Rieman said Wyoming needs to look at providing more resources to the state’s working adults to reach those lofty long-term goals.
ENDOW Executive Council member and Ptolemy Data Systems CEO Jesus Rios agreed and said scholarships for working adults to go back to school are virtually nonexistent in Wyoming.
“We really have to get creative about how we provide training, certifications and instruction that will meet the needs of an adult population,” Rios said. “There’s a large population of our community that are adults in the workforce — they’re in a job or career choice who maybe want to make a change, and it’s extremely difficult for them to pick up the skill sets or training that they might need to make a career change.”
The donation from Whitney Benefits should make a significant local impact, but is only one facet in a broader effort to sustain Wyoming’s long-term economy.