Local trade programs help satisfy worker demand

LARAMIE — Businesses around the United States continue a desperate search for employees during worker shortages sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the trade industries are no exception. 

Projections for new employment for automotive and diesel technicians are low, but employers and educators in Southeast Wyoming are telling a different story, saying the demand for skilled trade workers is only increasing. 

“They need workers yesterday, (and) they can’t find them,” said Caleb Perriton, pathway coordinator for Trades and Technical Studies at Laramie County Community College, about potential employers. 

Automotive technology service and mechanic jobs had a projected employment decrease of 6.7% between 2020 and 2022, according to Projections Central, a workforce data website. The projected change is a loss of 110 jobs, meaning 110 fewer people are being employed in this sector than normal. 

Nationally, 69,000 jobs in the auto tech industry are available each year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Perriton meets with industry employers weekly and hears the same thing over and over: Companies need more workers who have targeted training in a trade. The American Transportation Research Institute named a shortage in diesel mechanics as the one of the top 10 issues in the trucking industry last year. 

“Any person who’s wanting to get into a really sustainable career, this is a great spot to be,” Perriton said. 

He is working to recruit students to enroll in any of LCCC’s trade programs, which, with the exception of the dual-enrollment Automotive Technology Program offered to Laramie High School students, are available only at the school’s Cheyenne campus. 

While enrollment at LCCC has been down during the pandemic, Perriton is hopeful students will start to return as the world adjusts. The college is making investments to improve and modernize its trade programs, which include auto and diesel technology, welding, industrial maintenance, wind and energy programs. 

Leaders at the college want to build an Advanced Manufacturing and Materials Center in the next few years, which will provide students with resources to learn skills such as mill work, machine work and 3D printing.

While LCCC has struggled financially during the pandemic, especially the Laramie campus, these programs will have up-to-date resources, Perriton said. The college decided to cut some programs and use money from grants and industry donors to keep its remaining programs competitive. 

“It’s no secret that there’s a great shortage of workers anywhere in the trades, but these are more sustainable career paths,” Perriton said. 

LCCC allows students to learn a trade without taking general education courses or by integrating it into an associate or bachelor’s degree program. Students don’t have to take highly technical courses in the sciences, but still learn the important aspects of the disciplines through hands-on training. 

“‘I can’t afford to go to school and get training’ is not an excuse,” Perriton said. 

Administrators at WyoTech also report feeling a demand for workers from industry contacts, said Jim Mathis, the school’s owner and president. 

Despite the pandemic, enrollment at Laramie’s technical school has increased over the past three and a half years to a current enrollment of about 800 students. 

“It’s truly unbelievable the opportunities that our students leave with,” Mathis said, noting that starting wages have increased since the start of the pandemic. 

WyoTech expects about 70 employers to show up at an upcoming career fair to seek students for their special skills. While a typical starting hourly rate for students right out of WyoTech would be between $20 and $25, UPS in Denver recently offered students a $39 hourly starting wage, Mathis said. 

Automotive service technicians and mechanics tend to make more money in Wyoming than elsewhere in the county, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In May 2020, the annual compensation for these jobs in Wyoming was between $48,530 and $64,640, while the national mean was $46,760. 

Despite this, only about 6% of WyoTech students are from Wyoming, with between 5% and 10% staying in the state after completion of the program. 

While the school values its Wyoming students, it has to recruit throughout the country because of Wyoming’s small population, Mathis said.