The jackpot for a trained worker in Wyoming is a good-paying job, but the reverse has become more urgent for Cowboy State extraction and energy industries. The jackpot for them is finding trained workers.
Employment and technical training are top of mind for an expanding trona industry and backers of a construction project to build a small nuclear plant in Kemmerer that together promise to bring a few thousand jobs to southwestern Wyoming.
The Wyoming Workforce Development Council, which is made up of movers and shakers from every corner of the state, is discussing whether the community college system and others are doing enough to provide technical training for prospective workers in these job-creating Meccas in Sweetwater County.
“That’s a topic we discussed to make sure we get a trained workforce,” said Michelle Aldrich, the state director for career and technical education with the Wyoming Department of Education.
Big Things Brewing
TerraPower, which announced plans in late 2021 to build a small nuclear demonstration project costing $4 billion, may bring another 1,600 jobs into southwest Wyoming as it builds out, should a federal nuclear regulator give it a thumbs up.
In recent months, the trona industry in Sweetwater County also has taken the wraps off major expansion plans that will bring a few thousand more jobs.
“We want to make sure that our community colleges are funded adequately to provide skilled workforce training,” said Travis Deti, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.
The catalyst for the trona jobs comes from two major projects.
Pacific Soda, a joint venture between Sisecam and Ciner, is going through the permitting process to mine trona in southwestern Wyoming and produce 6 million tons of soda ash a year, more than double Sisecam’s current production level.
WE Soda Ltd., a unit of British-based Ciner Resources, announced plans to build a new soda ash production project southwest of Green River (also known as Project West) that has potential to produce 3 million tons to start.
Hundreds Of Workers Needed
Craig Rood, governmental affairs executive with Project West, is already working to create a pipeline for industrial maintenance workers with Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs.
Ciner helped the college design a two-year program that trains students on the mining company’s equipment on basic mechanics, ranging from how to repair pumps to welding and cutting metal.
“We’ve got maintenance and electrician jobs available,” Rood said. “That’s my hope.”
To get the trona mine ready for production, Project West will hire about 800 construction workers with a peak workforce of 1,200. Assuming permitting gets approved, construction on Project West complex could begin in 2025, he said.
Roughly 350 to 400 full-time workers will be needed as the trona mine shifts to production.
“We are involved in a long process with 30 agencies now to get permitting in line. It’s a drawn-out process. Everybody is really excited about the project,” said Rood, who noted the hiring challenges for workers with technical skills.
Those needs for trona and nuclear in southwest Wyoming don't include the jobs created in support industries that serve those businesses.
Education Is Key
The workforce development council wants to make sure technical programs are offered at the junior and high school levels, and community colleges, to expose students and others to retraining opportunities for these emerging technical jobs.
Aldrich cited a newly created electrical linemen program at Western Wyoming Community College as an example of the kind of technical training it wants to provide for Sweetwater County’s expanding industries.
It had been that the closest similar program for linemen was based at community colleges in Nebraska, she said.
“We are moving in the right direction and need to continue to move forward. We don’t have the time to rest on our laurels,” Aldrich said.
Pat Maio can be reached at email@example.com.