As Wyoming Ages, Volunteer Group Looks to Attract Young Workers
It's a million-dollar question: How does Wyoming — a state with a disproportionately aging population — retain young people?
And a group of young volunteers hopes to answer that.
Empowering the Next Generations to Advance and Grow the Economy (ENGAGE) is a movement of 18- to 35-year-olds who want to make Wyoming a place future generations will want to inherit.
True to its name, the primary mission of ENGAGE is to get young people to do just that, be it by serving on boards and commissions or running for public office.
"The real oomph comes with anyone who sees ENGAGE as permission to do something in their own community," ENGAGE President Amber Savage said. "We all love Wyoming."
ENGAGE's mission comes amid what one state economist called an impending serious labor shortage.
"Wyoming does not have enough resident workers to replace retiring boomers," state economist Dr. Wenlin Liu wrote last week.
The Cowboy State's growing average age is one of the highest in the U.S. Though due to a significant boomer population, young people leaving in pursuit of jobs is a major factor.
"The real question for us as an ENGAGE Council is how do we bring people back?" Savage said. "What is it that keeps these young folks who are extremely talented from coming home again?
"Is it community amenities and resources, or is it just the community feel in general?"
And it's not necessarily an issue of retention as much as it is a problem getting people to come back to the state, said Savage. Some of the nation's brightest minds come from Wyoming. If they want to get a world-class education at an Ivy League school, why stop them?
It'd just be nice if they came back.
"We can't legislate our way into bringing people home. A lot of these issues are community and culturally based," Savage said. "For Wyoming, it's going to be embracing change, not to say that we need to change the Wyoming lifestyle — that's why so many people do want to come back to Wyoming. It's a slower lifestyle."
That's where the brainstorming begins. It's not an easy question to answer, but ENGAGE is making headway.
Savage said it can be an issue like access to quality healthcare that brings Wyomingites back home or keeps them away. Sometimes, it's the availability of arts and entertainment. Wyoming prides itself on its bountiful outdoor recreation activities.
Some Wyoming communities have it easier than others. Sheridan boasts its proximity to the Bighorn Mountains and its Old West roots. Cody is a gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Jackson sits in a pristine valley and is a haven for the ski bum or mountaineer.
But what about Wyoming's isolated towns like Rawlins or Lusk?
Savage said that's the million-dollar question. She said Casper's work revitalizing its downtown over the past decade is a shining example of a city reinventing itself. There's no reason Rawlins couldn't do the same. It just takes the right people in the right places and knowing how to access the resources available to Wyomingites.
Perhaps it's promoting a unique trail system in the Rawlins area. Maybe it involves talking up the Carbon County town's proximity to a Blue Ribbon fly fishery.
A Lovell native, Savage sees her hometown the same way she viewed it as a teenager. Twenty years, little has changed.
"That's not very generous thinking for our communities," she said, adding there are "little things" communities can do to bring people back.
A more diverse job market would also be a start, Savage said.
"I work in the non-profit space. It's an interesting thing," Savage said. "Do those jobs exist in Wyoming? They can. We just have to be intentional about creating a space where those careers can exist."