BRAIN DRAIN: Wyoming’s Millennials and Gen Z Students Head for the Exits

UW juniors and seniors speak out on reasons for exodus

By Rachelle Trujillo

Special to the Wyoming Truth

LARAMIE, Wyo.—A recent Wyoming Truth survey of University of Wyoming juniors and seniors revealed that the majority of respondents intend to leave the state following graduation, a sign that “brain drain” is an ongoing issue plaguing the Cowboy State.

Brain drain is the emigration of educated individuals from one particular area to another, often for better living conditions or higher pay. 

Fifty students spoke to the Wyoming Truth and indicated whether they plan to stay, leave, leave and return, or are torn between remaining in Wyoming and moving to another state. The poll was conducted over several weeks in late October to early November.

Of the students surveyed, 42% said that they intend to bolt from Wyoming upon graduation, with only 28% indicating they wish to stay. Ten percent said they want to move but plan to eventually return, with the remaining 20% saying they are unsure of their future plans.

The survey results align with data published by the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services in September 2021. The data followed 2006-2007 high school graduates and found that 10 years after graduation, 50% had left Wyoming. The publication also noted that results were similar for cohorts through the 2019-2020 academic year.

“Wyoming’s labor force has been gradually decreasing over the past several years, and the exodus of young people contributes to this,” said Ty Stockton, chief deputy administrator for the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services. “Having an adequate supply of labor is important for any business, and employers considering relocating to Wyoming are concerned about whether they will be able to hire the workers they need.”

In the Wyoming Truth survey, 34 students provided reasons why they want to leave the state, with 62% citing limited job opportunities as the chief reason. 

Logan Ludwig, a UW junior on the pre-med track, noted that there are no medical schools in Wyoming and limited career options for physicians.

“The hospitals here are so rural that if you want to be a specialized doctor, whether you’re doing surgery or [working as a chiropractor]… it’s very hard to find a position in Wyoming,” he said.

Chrissy Renfro, associate director for career development for the University of Wyoming Advising, Career and Exploratory Services, acknowledged that while there may be more jobs available than students realize, the state does lack professional opportunities.

“There [are] certain things you just can’t do in Wyoming,” she said, reflecting on one student years ago who aspired to be a personal assistant to celebrities.

Renfro stressed the need for a statewide effort to diversify not only job opportunities, but also entertainment and activities as a brain drain prevention strategy. For the state to attract and retain young professionals, she said, state lawmakers would need to invest in or pass legislation to diversify the economy.

“There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for that,” Renfro acknowledged.  

Natalie Ziegenhorn poses for her graduation from University of Wyoming in spring 2022. She believes the political and social climate of the state does not reflect the views of young people, which could be a contributing factor for brain drain. (Courtesy photo from Natalie Ziegenhorn)

Some survey respondents also doubt that lawmakers will attempt to tackle brain drain by launching initiatives to keep young people in Wyoming.

Natalie Ziegenhorn, a 2022 UW graduate from Sheridan currently working for the University of Wyoming Foundation, is one of them. She also is frustrated with the state’s conservative political environment. Wyoming is one of the reddest states in the country, with Republicans comprising 78% of registered voters, and Ziegenhorn wishes its politics were more progressive and its population more diverse.

“I plan to continue my education, and I really do love UW, as well as the cheap tuition,” Ziegenhorn said. “I also can’t beat what I pay for cost of living. So until I can be 100% certain that I’m set financially, I’m [staying] here to save [money].”  

Even those survey respondents who plan to remain in the state echoed Ziegenhorn’s frustration.

Chance Hofer, a UW senior from Green River, wants to stay in Wyoming, but noted that the state’s deeply conservative political environment is a likely deterrent to young people with more liberal beliefs. 

“I don’t think that the state needs to become more blue [Democratic],” said Hofer, a dual major in mathematics and secondary mathematics education. “I think it just needs to become more welcoming. I don’t think there’s one way to go about it, other than people just need to accept other people.” 

Other students like Justice Miller, a UW senior from Osage, believe there’s a misconception about the state’s political climate.

“People from out of state come into Wyoming expecting everybody to be, metaphorically speaking, bleeding red, blatant bigots and racists, and that’s not true,” Miller said. “The majority of people in Wyoming just want to be left alone. They don’t really care what you are or what you do.”

Despite the state’s political climate and its perceived impact on young individuals, Hofer noted that overall people in Wyoming are kind. That sentiment was shared by 68.4% of all Wyoming Truth respondents, who said the state’s people are a reason to make Wyoming their home long term.

Of 36 students who disclosed their reasons to stay in Wyoming, 72.2% cited family connections and a supportive friend group. Others said they value the low cost of living, the beautiful landscape and outdoor activities, such as hunting and fishing.  

These reasons could explain the results of another survey about UW graduates’ post-college plans.  

A career outcome survey conducted by UW analyzed where alumni from the classes of 2019, 2020 and 2021 ended up after graduation. The results found that of 2,966 UW graduates surveyed, about 50% remained in the state. Of the 1,470 students who left Wyoming, 44% moved to a border state. 

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