First, the context: Wyoming is not only the least populous state in the country, but it’s also the fastest de-populating. That population loss has also been disproportionately the state’s young people, as the state has hemorrhaged its recent graduates over the past few years.
While there are no doubt multiple factors driving this trend, the most punch-you-in-the-face obvious has been its lack of economic diversity. To say Wyoming has been reliant on coal would be a Cowboy State-sized understatement – it produces more coal than Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania combined.
Many of its Millennials are simply opting out, heading south for the greener (pun intended) pastures of Northern Colorado, booming with renewable energy potential and a tech economy anchored by Google and in the running for Amazon’s HQ2. Jesus Rios, CEO of Sheridan, Wyoming-based Ptolemy Data Systems, sees it plainly: “Wyoming continues to suffer the brain drain from some of our best and brightest talent electing to leave the State of Wyoming to pursue careers in other parts of the country.”
The virtue of small states, though, is that, at their best, they can also be the most agile and responsive. Governor Matt Mead created his keystone ENDOW Initiative (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming), allocating almost $40 million dollars this year for big bets on Wyoming’s future, including its technology and innovation economy. Just yesterday, he championed it in his State of the State Address: “Sometimes out of adversity, in our case the recent energy downturn, comes opportunity… I support computer science, including coding in all grades. Computer science is an important classroom subject, as important in this day and age as any. It’s is a requisite for our students to become life-ready, workforce-ready.”
In addition to Megan Smith’s recent Cheyenne jaunt, the last few months have also seen the Hyperloop One Global Challenge name Cheyenne as a potential destination for the first Hyperloop route, and Blockchain enthusiasts dreaming up a Wyoming crypto-utopia leveraging the state’s light regulatory infrastructure, fiber-optic bandwidth, and cheap power.
Outside investments certainly would help catalyze growth, but to sustain it Wyoming knows it needs to grow in its in-state talent pipeline. Microsoft, one of the few multi-national tech companies with a presence in Wyoming, finds hope in the recent developments. “[ENDOW] offers an innovative, multi-faceted approach for Wyoming to support the workforce of today and grow the workforce of the future,” says Fred Humphries, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of U.S. Government Affairs. “It’s particularly encouraging to see a focus on computer science education. These are skills needed in every industry.”