Wyoming’s brain drain, youth exodus slowed during pandemic


Three years ago, millennials became the largest living adult population in the United States, but not in Wyoming, where a steady flow of young people have migrated out of the state for years. 

A recent report by the Department of Workforce Services noted a 6% decrease in Wyoming’s millennial population between 2014 and 2020. That comes despite a slowdown of youth exodus in 2019-2020 and anecdotal evidence that fewer millennials left during the pandemic. 

“It could be that with the COVID pandemic, there wasn’t as much reason to travel to another state to find work because it affected everybody, not just us,” Michael Moore, author of the report, said. 

That wasn’t the only impact the pandemic had on Wyoming’s demographics. 

Wyoming’s overall population grew modestly between 2020 and 2021 according to the latest release from the Economic Analysis Division. The authors noted “the majority of the State’s population increase was from people moving into the state.” Amy Bittner, the principal economist with the division, stated “COVID-19 may have prompted more people to move to Wyoming than leave the state.”

Moore’s department heard anecdotes of younger workers leaving larger metropolitan areas and moving to more rural areas like Wyoming, where they can work remotely, in what has been dubbed the Zoom boom. Some 22% of Americans moved due to COVID-19 according to a study from Pew Research. The nationwide economic downturn may have also made the prospect of moving to a city with few supports less appealing. Pew also found that young adults, who were particularly impacted by job losses and college shutdowns, moved at a higher rate.

Despite pandemic related shifts, experts say that to truly address Wyoming’s youth exodus and brain-drain problem, more job opportunities need to be created, infrastructure improved and cultural shifts must take place.

The pandemic-related slowdown in the millennial exodus came as a surprise to some. 

“It’s funny because it doesn’t fit the narrative,” Matt Henry, assistant instructional professor at the Honors College of the University of Wyoming, said. Henry helped run “Imagining Wyoming’s Future: A Youth Vision for 2030” contest and has spent a lot of time thinking about why young people are leaving. He’s heard from a lot of his students, many who are interested in working in the non-profit sector or other civic engagement professions, that they leave Wyoming because they can’t find opportunities post-graduation in the state, he said. 

Young people have also recounted to WyoFile that they struggled to envision a future in Wyoming because there were few job opportunities outside of the oil and gas industry.

The Department of Workforce Services has been tracking young Wyoming residents after they graduate high school for decades. Its latest study, released this fall, followed 18-year-olds over the course of a decade. 

“Basically the report says the same thing that the one from 2012 said, that 10 years later we lose 50% to 60% of our youth in a given year,” said Tony Glover, manager of the Research and Planning division of Workforce Services. 

Although not all high school seniors could be tracked 10 years later, the department found that roughly 12% were working in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Alaska, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. Colorado and Utah have some of the highest proportions of millennials in the country, with populations comprised of 24.5% and 23.4% of the generation, respectively. 

Neighboring Mountain West states have also seen astronomical population growth in general — Idaho, Utah, Montana and Arizona had the highest annual growth rates in the nation, making Wyoming’s addition of 1,536 residents last year seem modest by comparison.

In Moore’s analysis of millennials leaving the Wyoming job market, he noted that economic downturns have played a part in young people leaving. “Younger male workers are the most likely to lose their jobs during times of economic downturn in Wyoming,” he wrote.

Efforts have been made to stanch the perpetual loss of young workers. 

For example, in 2015 the state launched Wyoming Grown. The program aims to draw back people who have left Wyoming by connecting them with potential job leads. Last year the program partnered with the state’s tourism department and launched WY Relocate — a marketing campaign extolling the natural amenities Wyoming has to offer. 

The campaign generated 3,000 leads, from business owners interested in potentially moving to the state to remote workers considering a new home, according to Shaye Moon, the business training and support unit program manager for the Department of Workforce Services. She was not able to say how many of those leads translated into relocations. 

Annual employment in the state was also up by 3.1% between July 2020 and 2021 according to the latest report from the Economic Analysis Division. “Employment opportunities drive migration into an area, which is typically true for Wyoming,” Bittner stated in the release. 

“I don’t think that the trend that we saw from COVID would reliably predict any major long-term shift,” said Amber Pollock, president of ENGAGE Wyoming, a grassroots organization focusing on the future of 18- to 35-year-olds in the state. “There’s a lot of folks who have been trying to solve the problem for a long time.”

Pollock said she’s heard of people that moved home to Wyoming because they lost their job or were furloughed, or took a semester off of school when the pandemic hit. “A lot of folks moving back have family here and so a better support system for the financial situation that a lot of folks in our demographic were facing.”

Henry, at the University of Wyoming, echoed that. “I’ve had a few students go home as they look for work.” 

Moon also said the pandemic played a role in the interest expressed through the Wyoming Grown program. “People that moved away for a job opportunity in a bigger city, are now rethinking their entire life plan,” she said. “COVID has played a big part in wanting to come back here, where they’re not in a city where they’re so close to everybody.”

One thing the pandemic hasn’t changed? The reasons that compel young people to leave the state in the first place, according to Pollock — namely better educational opportunities, career advancement and culture elsewhere. 

She believes addressing issues like access to health care and public transportation, as well as enacting non-discrimination ordinances, could truly help retain the next generation of Wyomingites.

TRENDING RECIPE VIDEOS