The construction trades industry has a perception problem, said Larry Fodor, project manager for Mechanical Systems, Inc., in Cheyenne. It's often seen as a rather disappointing Plan B for high school students if college isn't an option, he said.
That perception comes from several angles, including school guidance counselors and parents who have been brought up to believe that the four-year college track is the only way to earn a good living.
That perception changes for people when he explains that a high school graduate can immediately enter a 4-year paid apprenticeship to become, say, an electrician, and make upwards of $70,000 a year with benefits and zero college debt by age 22. Not only that, but there are many job opportunities in construction trades, he added, unlike many industries that are overly saturated by brand-new bachelor's degree holders.
"It's fun to see the light come on in their eyes," he said.
The construction trades industry has struggled against this perception problem for years, making it difficult to find enough workers to fill open positions. And that struggle is just one of the many challenges that various Wyoming industries face.
Recognizing those challenges, a team of state agencies kicked off a new strategy in 2018 to help meet them: Next Generation Sector Partnerships.
The Next Gen strategy aims to position industry professionals as the leaders in economic growth, with the public sector (such as economic developers, educators and workforce professionals) following their lead. It's a reversal from how such partnerships tend to operate, with the public sector frequently directing industries toward their own vision of the future. And it asks companies to do something they wouldn't normally do: sit down with their competitors to discuss mutually beneficial progress.
The construction trades industry in Laramie County was identified early in the process as one that could benefit from this strategy. Other regions of Wyoming have identified different industries - such as manufacturing in Albany County, healthcare in Fremont County, and finance and insurance in Campbell, Crook and Weston Counties.
Laramie County's construction trades industry has experienced particularly fast progress with the Next Gen strategy. Among its early victories are:
- Working with Laramie County School District #1 to coordinate a bus tour for school counselors and staff that visited nine different construction businesses around Cheyenne. The school staff members learned about the broad variety of career opportunities the companies offer, including details on wages, benefits packages and training options.
- Creating a single point of contact - an email address monitored by the Wyoming Young Contractors Association - where school counselors can get more information and help match kids to open job positions. That email address has received nearly 30 inquiries since Nov. 2018.
- Presenting to students at each of the three Cheyenne high schools about construction trades.
- Launching a dual-enrollment program at all Cheyenne high schools this fall, which will allow students to complete their first semester of NCCER apprenticeship certification with Laramie County Community College and others while they finish high school.
- Establishing and hiring a new workforce coordinator position at Laramie County School District #1, with the goal of working with students and various industries to help build relationships.
Fodor said the Next Gen strategy has given a unified voice to his industry, and forced the public sector to really listen rather than try to direct the conversations.
"Everybody has worked on these issues, but everybody was working on them independently," he said. "This model puts it all together so that everybody is pulling in the same direction. I think this Next Gen strategy is really going to open some eyes."
These early wins will not only help his industry thrive, he added, but will help the entire region by making young people more aware of the career opportunities they have right here in Wyoming.
The Next Generation Sector Partnership model was launched statewide by the Wyoming Workforce Development Council in May of 2018 with the support of key state agencies represented on the Council. These agencies include the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, the Wyoming Business Council, the Wyoming Department of Education and the Wyoming Community College Commission.