Gov. Mark Gordon visited Powell on Monday, along with University of Wyoming President Edward Seidel. Gordon and Seidel toured Northwest College, learning more about its academic programs as part of …
Gov. Mark Gordon visited Powell on Monday, along with University of Wyoming President Edward Seidel. Gordon and Seidel toured Northwest College, learning more about its academic programs as part of the Wyoming Innovation Network (WIN).
The effort seeks to modernize and refocus the state’s higher education system through greater collaboration between UW and Wyoming’s seven community colleges. The overall aim is to produce a workforce with the skills for future industries, which are changing rapidly, and to help further the goals of diversifying the state’s economy.
At a luncheon following his tour of NWC’s program, Gordon said the origins of the WIN initiative came from a suggestion made by former NWC President Stefani Hicswa; she said UW’s president and the presidents of Wyoming community colleges should discuss greater partnerships toward elevating the state’s post-secondary education offerings.
“It’s all her fault,” Gordon said.
The luncheon was attended by a few dozen members of the area’s business community, NWC faculty, K-12 educators and government officials.
Gordon spoke of the challenges the state is facing as traditional extraction industries come to terms with the problem of climate change.
“Climate is changing. We know this,” Gordon said.
He discussed how it could impact agriculture in the Big Horn Basin. Climate change may result in less snowfall, which could produce faster runoff through the watersheds. As a result, water storage systems, such as Buffalo Bill Reservoir, will fill up faster and leave less capacity for later in the growing season.
“That means big things for irrigation,” Gordon said.
As a result of the impacts of climate change, coal is an industry that Gordon said will not likely ever be as robust as it once was.
“Coal is facing some really significant national challenges. … This [Biden] administration feels extremely strongly that we can no longer depend at all on coal,” Gordon said.
Gordon spoke on how the WIN program will also be looking to build a workforce for the future of agriculture, which has a role to play in addressing the problem of climate change. As plants grow, they take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil. So the industry functions as a sequestration effort.
Gordon also spoke of the potential for nuclear power in the state. Recently, the governor announced a partnership between the State of Wyoming, Pacificorp and an advanced nuclear power developer, TerraPower, which was co-founded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The program aims to build a new type of reactor that doesn’t use water but molten sodium for cooling.
Gordon called it a “step forward” that would provide not only severance taxes, but also 250 to 400 jobs for the first planned reactor.
“These are good paying jobs, and they’re careers,” the governor said.
All of the innovations in industries require reskilling of the workforce. Coal miners need to have access to nuclear technician programs, and future farmers will need to be able to develop the skills for new techniques in agriculture.
“It is a new world, and as a new world that is adapting rapidly, we have to have an education system that can adapt to that as well,” Gordon said.
During a Q&A session, Gordon responded to questions about the labor shortage that almost all Wyoming businesses are facing right now. The governor said a friend of his who lives in Jackson and owns a restaurant is paying workers $35 per hour in hopes of recruiting enough of them.
Gordon pointed out that one of the values to living and working in Wyoming is its quality K-12 and higher education system.
NWC Trustee Carolyn Danko spoke of the challenge of bringing people into the state when Wyoming’s unique culture doesn’t always appeal to people from urban areas. Danko said the state needs people from Wyoming to find opportunities that encourage them to stay and grow in their own communities.
“We really need a homegrown workforce,” Danko said.
Seidel also spoke of how rapidly industries are changing. As an example, he pointed to the fact that Airbnb, a company that helps private property owners rent out their properties for temporary stays, is now considered the largest hotel chain in America.
“Things are changing underneath our feet profoundly, and very rapidly,” Seidel said.
The UW president said WIN will help better facilitate “digital literacy,” as computer technology will continue to have an enormous impact on shaping businesses of the future.
Seidel said WIN will seek solid corporate partnerships to ensure companies looking to establish in Wyoming have the workforce they need. He also said the colleges and universities need a more robust research portfolio that would make them more eligible for federal funding opportunities.
Seidel also explained why WIN needs to be a collaboration between higher education institutions in the state, as it would create “synergy” between them.
“Individual institutions can’t do it alone,” Seidel said.
As an example of the kinds of partnerships that build those workforce skills, Seidel pointed to a program at NWC that trains K-12 educators in meeting the state’s computer science educational standards. The program graduated its first cohort of 15 educators in May. As another example, Seidel pointed to efforts to make the transfer of community college credits to UW more seamless.
NWC Interim President Lisa Watson noted the college will celebrate its 75-year anniversary in September.
“As we head into our next 75 years, my message to each of you — to our communities, to our schools, to our industries — is that we have a continued and unwavering commitment to serving Wyoming and its citizens through relevant academic programing,” Watson said.
Watson discussed the college’s budgetary challenges, which have been one consequence of the state’s decline in extraction industries. This resulted in three rounds of major budget cuts in the past several years and the elimination of 75 jobs.
“That’s not good for our community,” Watson declared.
She also discussed the college’s efforts at institutional transformation, which is looking to innovate the college’s programming and overall approach to higher education. She spoke confidently of the college’s future and ability to survive.
“With all my heart, I say we will,” Watson said.