Taiwan might seem like an unlikely place to look for ideas to solve Wyoming’s labor force crunch, but it turns out the small island nation off the coast of China has a lot in common with the Cowboy State.
“Across Taiwan, they have the same data points that we do in terms of two jobs for every one worker,” Department of Workforce Services Director Robin Sessions Cooley told Cowboy State Daily. “And they have some neat programs set up too, which are pretty creative, to help solve that.”
Cooley was one of several American delegates invited to Taiwan for a weeklong deep dive into workforce issues and solutions, a kind of international brainstorming session.
“I went with delegates from Oregon, Missouri, Arkansas and two federal delegates,” she said. “The idea was to share back and forth our best practices and to talk about things they’re doing and things we’re doing.”
Cooley said her invitation for the trip was part luck. She had been at a national conference on workforce issues and was standing nearby when a discussion started up about the trip.
“We are a rural state, and they were trying to get a good mix of states on this trip,” she said.
Since she was standing right there when the discussion began, she was able to make the case for a Cowboy State presence during the weeklong workshop in Taiwan.
Like Wyoming, Taiwan too has a large retirement cliff ahead.
“They have a similar population of elderly and are seeing a number of people retiring out of the workforce,” Cooley said. “They’re working with industry to provide subsidies to keep 55-plus workers in the workforce.”
That effort includes subsidies to provide assistive aids that might be needed to help keep people in the workforce longer.
“They don’t give examples, but my thought went to hearing aids, walking devices, maybe even wheelchairs,” Cooley said. “I thought that was really pretty creative and it’s a joint collaboration.”
Cooley said Wyoming’s retirees are more in the 60-plus age group.
“That is what we’re seeing now, and during COVID, we had a lot of retirements, and then we also have a lot of people moving into the state who are 60, 65-plus,” she said. “So finding ways, whether it’s part-time employment, changing up the hourly structure, to keep them in the workforce longer, that could be a critical tool to address some of that.”
Something that she’s seen in other American states are programs that allow people to take part of their retirement while also working part-time.
Changing some of the dynamics around retirement will take federal partners, though, she said.
“We’ve got some things that are keeping perfectly capable adults out of the workforce,” she said. “Some of those have to be revamped and rethought. People are living longer and they, people need to be in the workforce. And we just don’t have enough workers.”
Wyoming’s other problem is what Cooley calls “brain drain.”
It’s the exodus of young people who have finished their education but leave the state for jobs elsewhere.
“We do a good job of education our students, but then they leave the state,” Cooley said.
Internships might be one avenue to help turn that around, she suggested, and is among ideas that Wyoming Innovation Partnership and the Workforce Development Council have been working.
“We’re also looking at more funding for our training, internship and apprenticeship programs,” Cooley said. “If we can really ramp that up, it could make such a big difference.”
Studies suggest that 50% of people who do an internship with a company will end up staying with that company, Cooley said.
“If we can give them those on-the-job opportunities through internships or apprenticeships, we can potentially keep more of them in the state and in those good jobs,” Cooley said.
Wyoming has an internship grant, which in fiscal year 2023 supported wages for 374 interns as well as 1,372 trainees. But the state has far more applications than that.
“We have limited funding,” Cooley said. “Our applications indicate we could triple that.”
Shoot For The Moon
One of the highlights during Session’s trip was a hands-on look at Taiwan’s apprenticeship program for bakers.
“You go and you get stackable credentials, you get certifications in the program,” Cooley said. “And they took us through one of the training modules.”
That involved actually making moon pies and pineapple cakes, both of which are popular for celebrations and as gifts.
“The training module was just fantastic,” Cooley said. “It’s like an apprenticeship program. You successfully pass these tests, and then you can go out, work in a bakery, or you can start your own business.”
One person, for example, started an online business with a delivery truck that has been so popular it leads to an unusual sight.
“You’ll see people lined up on the sidewalk, but there’s nothing there,” Cooley said. “They all get like a message that says be at this site at 4 p.m. to come pick up your delivery.”
Cooley particularly liked the engagement with Taiwan’s apprenticeship program, because Wyoming also is working on its apprenticeship programs.
“A lot of the things they’re doing are things we are already working toward,” she said.
Seeing it through a slightly different lens, though, was inspiring.
“It also gave me real understanding of and appreciation for that government-industry collaboration and how it can really foster a movement,” she said. “And maybe it’s something that in Wyoming, you know, we’ve maybe forgotten a little bit. We maybe need to foster that relationship a little bit more, to get industry actively involved and working on the issue. Not that government’s going to have the answer, but it’s going to have to be everyone working together, and that’s what I saw a lot of in Taiwan.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.