The Pete Simpson Forum

A Note From Pete:

Sometimes the world outside Wyoming’s borders changes faster than we do, and for all the pride we have in our independent nature it can be a detriment as much as an asset. These ideas are evident in this edition of The Pete Simpson Forum. Wyoming businessmen Scott Kane and Shawn Houck take separate paths to arrive at the conclusion: Wyoming must change its ways.

Kane sees an opportunity for Wyoming to lead in renewable energy and energy efficiency — an opportunity that is perhaps overshadowed by an intense focus on preserving a coal industry that might not ever regain favor in a carbon constrained world. “The time has come for Wyoming to reinvent its relationship with energy and, to some extent, its self-image,” Kane writes.

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As a young entrepreneur who launched a successful advertising business, Houck understands that Wyoming will not make the most out of its unique qualities until it adapts to the values of today’s young professionals. “It’s clear that if we want to continue to enjoy the abundance of opportunity that exists in our state, we need to make retaining and attracting young professionals a top priority,” Houck writes. That includes adapting progressive social values, as well as investing in communities in ways that diversify cultural and entertainment opportunities.

Change and challenge go hand in hand and, as the old fable has it, both are inevitable. Let’s hear from you. What do you think change in Wyoming might look like in 10 or so years, and how best might it be addressed?”


— Peter K. Simpson

Wyoming must shift its economic and social policies

by Shawn Houck
— July 1, 2014

Wyoming is blessed with serious abundance: natural resources, scenic views, wildlife, jobs, award-winning craft beers. Among these we’re fortunate to have more than our fair share.

Shawn Houck

We also take pride in our strong economy, low unemployment and minimal individual tax rates. By these measures, Wyoming is a good place to live and own a business. When I started my company back in 1999, I was pleased to discover yet another abundance: opportunity.

There is simply no limit to the number of projects that a smart, talented team can attract. And in my naive beginnings, I believed that there could be no such thing as too many projects or clients. After all, more clients means more money, and taking care of those new clients should be as simple as investing that money into more creative minds. Growth, I thought, is as easy as spotting a pronghorn on a golf course. Simple.

As it turns out, I was wrong. In Wyoming, there’s nothing simple about growth, because there’s at least one thing we do not have an abundance of.

You see, I work in marketing, and so the kinds of jobs we create are perfect for young programmers, graphic artists and writers. And nearly 20 years after Windows 95 ushered most of us into the internet age, the desktop publishing age and the interactive gaming age (Myst, anyone?), it’s fair to expect that these young, talented folks would be pouring out of our state’s schools and into our workforce. But they’re not. And it’s not just the creative kids who are MIA. Wyoming is aging fast. A 2012 U.S. Census Bureau report estimates that 32.2 percent of Wyoming’s population will be over the age of 60 by the year 2030.

It’s clear that if we want to continue to enjoy the abundance of opportunity that exists in our state, we need to make retaining and attracting young professionals a top priority. More jobs for young, creative Wyomingites means more young families, more amenities and more enthusiasm for the beautiful state that we call home. Here are a few things we can do to get the ball rolling:

Build communications infrastructure:

Wyoming is a large state with lots of open spaces, few people, and money in the bank. We should be investing in infrastructure that increases connectivity and improves access while lowering (or eliminating!) fees to residents and businesses operating in the state. Ubiquitous, fast, cheap data could be a point of pride and spur innovation among young entrepreneurs. By making a significant investment in communications infrastructure, Wyoming could position itself as the place to be for emerging technologies in everything from data storage to self-driving vehicles. The jobs these industries create will attract, retain and support bright minds and young families.

Support vocational training programs in high schools:

Kids who leave high school with advanced certifications and specialized job training can make an immediate impact for Wyoming companies. Programs like Natrona County’s CAPS will equip students with the skills they need to land a high paying job right out of school.

Hire the right teachers:

Teachers will play an enormous role in developing Wyoming’s young professional community, especially when it comes to technology-based industries. A simple rule of thumb for deciding if your teachers have what it takes to train the leaders of Wyoming’s new information economy: if industry doesn’t want to steal them away from you, they aren’t the right teachers.

Support social policies that attract and protect non-traditional families:

If we want young people to stick around, it’s important that our state’s social policies reflect their beliefs. Take, for example, the hot-button issue of marriage equality. According to a 2014 Gallup poll, 78 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 support same-sex marriages. Yet in Wyoming, our lawmakers have repeatedly introduced legislation that would prohibit same-sex marriage (most recently in 2011). Other issues such as healthcare and urban development should be tackled head-on if our mission to attract and retain young people is to succeed.

Build cool shit:

Read the companion piece for this Pete Simpson Forum: Wyoming must reinvent its relationship with energy

Young people crave innovative places to live, work and play. Our state has a proud tradition of developing top-notch recreational facilities and parks, and it’s high time that same commitment to excellence be applied to housing, workplace and retail spaces. Support your local downtown’s efforts to create loft living spaces. Vote to support the construction of innovative spaces in libraries, on college campuses and on Main Street. Allocate resources to business incubators, conference centers and concert halls.

Buy tickets to sporting events, concerts and cultural events:

Young people won’t stick around if they don’t have anything to do. Supporting events helps to build a more stable social scene. If they can’t find friends and potential spouses in your home town, they are going to move to someone else’s.

— Casper native Shawn Houck is president of Inc., a company he founded in 1999. The company recently completed renovations on a new office facility in an old warehouse space in Casper’s Old Yellowstone District. Houck has an English degree from the University of Wyoming.

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  1. I see that building high value companies such as life science companies was left out. Nearly every ED organization across the state has targeted LS companies as a source of growth, jobs, and tax base. Further, this is the main thrust of the Wyoming Technology Business Council located on the campus of UW. Other high value opportunities exist such as data centers, internet companies, and social media.

  2. If industry doesn’t want to hire your teachers, they aren’t any good? You may want to reconsider that one. Education is not corporate and when one becomes the other, the news is generally bad.

  3. Wyoming, “Forever Last”…. and proud of it. “If they’re going to stay”, it certainly won’t be for the career opportunities. Good roads and modern autos have made it easier to commute to the “outside” but that has nearly killed off our Main Streets. The boom and bust cycles have created a “petro state” mentality that makes us so reliant on federal monies that change is nearly impossible. I’m 3rd generation and for 50 years I have been hoping that state leadership will become more visionary but it has gotten more myopic. My grandmother once told me, about politicians, that “you don’t get who you need, you get who wants the job”. Wyoming eats its young….

  4. I have a distinct feeling that big energy, oil and coal, don’t want anyone else “horning in” on their territory, it seems our lawmakers kiss their collective a$$e$ for the money they give to them and our schools and other big businesses may cramp their style, especially solar and wind power generation, two Huge opportunities for this state, and a communication hub would fit quite nicely with that model.
    We can’t keep kids here, nor can we seem to keep specialized professionals here either, Doctors, Tech experts, Computer experts,, they have no reason to live here either, a few will, and do (thank you) but not enough.
    With the population of many small cities in our whole state, well, that is not very good incentive for job creation or trying to convince anyone to live or move here, many visitors love this state, but when they ask “what is there to do (within a 100 miles)”, what do you say?
    Coal and oil has been good for us, but the time of coal must go away,,,,,

  5. Shawn, you are right on. As a retired math teacher, it was tough to see some of my best and brightest students head out of state. We can lure young talent to our great state by doing some of the things that Shawn mentions in his article. We can have the place that Wyoming is and still have cool shit built on top of it. The far right rednecks don’t have to approve of everything that happens or is built in this state. If they don’t like it they can stay away from those places and events. We can all still share our wild Wyoming.

  6. It is a tough shift to build up the cool stuff we do have and yet overcome the “never change” attitude in some of our communities around the state. In some cases, I think certain areas of the state live in a fish bowl – their environment will never change and they will slowly fade away – if they have not already. Some areas are like the land that time forgot…….

    As an employer, attracting young professionals is difficult. There are job opportunities out there, you just have to look a little harder sometimes. With more modern and entrepreneurial opportunities in Salt Lake or Denver, our younger generation find the lifestyle/opportunities in other locations much easier to locate. Sometimes they miss what is in front of them, other times the older generation put up barriers – “we like it just the way it is” so why do we need to change? I have seen a lot of good talent move south because of that attitude, some that have stayed and built great business in spite of the barriers.

    I also think we use “nothing to do” as an excuse as well. It may not be Elitch’s year round, but most of the young professionals I work with tend to lead pretty busy lives – especially if they have young kids. It is what you make of it.

  7. Wyoming loses a great number of young people each year. They go to college, then find that Wyoming cannot support work outside of service industries, state government and energy such as coal and the oil rigs. Many creative, intelligent young people dearly love their home state but find they cannot live here–there is no support for the careers and fields they are interested in. Support is not such a big thing, either…I think the suggestions Shawn Houck makes are right on target. So many Wyomingites seem to be threatened by anything that is different than the way it has always been. The young people who leave are seen as some kind of traitors because they go out of state (they become educated “libruls” who somehow no longer are welcome). The stories about rejection of Science standards, equal marriage laws, and suspicion of anything that smacks of academics, or education makes our state look pretty dismal to the rest of the country. Wyoming is beautiful, and maybe not for everyone, but it certainly ought to be available and supportive of its own homegrown young people. The “if you don’t like it the way it is and has always been, get out” mentality needs to change. Progress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can choose to change some things and keep others. If we don’t, we are going to find ourselves a state full of old, scared citizens someday.

  8. Always keeping in mind that Wyoming ain’t for everyone. Having the same urban amenities as everywhere else won’t change that. Wyoming is much more love at first sight than an acquired taste. If they’re going to stay, it will be for the place, not the cool shit built on top of it.