SHERIDAN — Manufacturing companies in Sheridan and Johnson counties kicked off a partnership earlier this month that will focus on identifying opportunities for growth within the industry and collaborative strategies that will help realize those opportunities. The partnership — which is being led by representatives from Kennon Products, Vacutech and Mountain Meadow Wool — is based on a model used nationwide called a Next Generation Sector Partnership.

Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce CEO Dixie Johnson said the impetus for the partnership came out of a NextGen Academy meeting in May where she and stakeholders from both Sheridan and Johnson counties discussed how such a partnership might function locally.

During that meeting, the group decided that a partnership focused on the manufacturing sector would provide the greatest benefit to the region.

With that in mind, Johnson worked to convene local private sector leaders to head the initiative.

Kennon CEO Joe Wright, who is one of the co-chairs of the initiative, said he was initially cautious about entering into a local NextGen partnership, as there are already several economic development entities in Sheridan County. After speaking with companies in Bozeman, Montana, that had created a NextGen partnership, however, he was convinced the local partnership could approach economic development from a unique angle.

“This initiative is different in that it is private industry led,” Wright said. “This is a venue for manufacturing companies in Sheridan and Johnson counties to discuss issues that we all face and are important to our prosperity.”

Several local government representatives and representatives from other public-sector organizations attended the initiative’s first meeting earlier this month, but they were strictly observers. The private business leaders drove the conversation and used the meeting to explore what they believe the priorities are for growing the local manufacturing sector.

Because the partnership focuses on offering industry perspectives on economic development, Johnson said it will supplement the development efforts entities like the Sheridan Economic and Educational Development Authority or the Chamber pursue.

“The reason those [public-sector] representatives were invited was so they could hear what the industry needs are and hopefully there can be some response,” Johnson said. “It changes the format a bit…really what it is is letting the industry lead it and tell us what they need.”

Vacutech’s Director of Manufacturing Nate Williams, who is also serving as a co-chair of the local NextGen partnership, added that some of the goals of local manufacturing companies, such as finding solutions for a shortage of affordable housing in Sheridan County, line up with the goals of those public entities as well.

“Organic and intentional growth within the manufacturing sector directly supports ongoing economic development efforts through the creation of jobs, growth of the tax base and the potential development of cottage industries that support manufacturing businesses,” Williams said.

“The opportunity to establish clear and concise focus areas within the NextGen partnership, aligned with the support of public organizations, provides the opportunity to more effectively leverage economic development efforts and can help to ensure that growth is intentional, consistent, and aligned with the needs of the community.”

One of the goals that emerged from that first meeting was creating a greater emphasis on developing a manufacturing workforce locally.

“Wyoming’s an energy state — always has been — but those particular jobs don’t necessarily dovetail into manufacturing positions,” Wright said.

Wright said the group discussed working with Sheridan College to expand on the manufacturing training it is already offering, as well as working with local school districts to offer manufacturing education, even if it is something as simple as a unit that describes what modern manufacturing jobs look like.

“I think there’s this perception out there about what manufacturing is that’s not really tied to reality,” Wright said.

Wright also said he believes there are opportunities to collaborate with the broader local business industry as well and has sought participation from business leaders outside of the manufacturing sector.

“These things aren’t specific to manufacturing, all of these are things that anybody who is running a business has to deal with,” Wright said. “And in an area that is rural like ours, it’s hard to get yourself a knowledge base to work with other people that have gone through this before. And so having that group of people, I think, is going to be pretty powerful.”

The initiative members plan to convene again in the coming weeks, where Wright said they will begin to develop tangible strategies that will facilitate growth throughout the business community countywide.