Hidden in the crevices of west Laramie is a rapidly growing, thriving trade school called WyoTech.
WyoTech is a diesel and automotive-related training school for those seeking diesel, automotive and collision refinishing careers. The school was practically brought back from the dead under the new leadership of Chief Executive Officer Jim Mathis. Since July 2018, Mathis has sought to reinvigorate the school that provided him with excellent education and training.
Mathis’ connection to WyoTech dates back to 1976, when he became a student of the school. Raised in LaGrange, he left home at the age of 14 to move onto a ranch for work. He fell in love with the work, the equipment and riding horses. When he was 17, he took a job driving a semi-trailer truck across the country during the winter months.
“I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Mathis said of his experience as a young truck driver. After that experience, he was determined to own a fleet of semi trucks. He enrolled in WyoTech to study diesel technology. As with many things in life, Mathis’ plan to own a fleet of trucks did not unfurl exactly as he envisioned. He said that halfway through his schooling, he had a teacher who inspired him to teach.
A 19-year-old Mathis graduated from WyoTech in June of 1976, and he moved to Nebraska to drive a combine harvester. Five months after his graduation from WyoTech, he received word that there was a teaching position open at the school.
“When I heard that, I parked the combine and drove 8 miles to a payphone,” Mathis said. With a smile, he recalled the president of the school laughing at his youth and inexperience.
He kept calling. One day, he drove all the way to Laramie and knocked on WyoTech’s door to insist on being hired for the position. Impressed with his tenacity, the school finally hired him for the teaching position.
Mathis noted that the first six months of teaching were rough.
“I kept wondering what I had talked my way into. I was very shy, and for some reason I got it in my head that I wanted to teach,” he said.
But he gained his stride. From a teaching position, he worked his way up to training director, then vice president. He worked in admissions and marketing, and eventually became president.
In 2002, Corinthian Colleges purchased the school, and Mathis made his exit. He spent the next few years running schools in California, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas and Connecticut. By July 2014, he had an itch to return to Wyoming, and started ranching again.
“Around that time, I heard WyoTech was closing down,” Mathis said.
The state of Wyoming approached him about purchasing the school, which he ultimately did. Classes started in July 2018 under his new leadership, with 12 students and 12 employees.
WyoTech now has nearly 500 students from all 50 states, and around 125 employees. Under Mathis’ leadership, the school kept most of its programming and hired a robust marketing and recruiting team.
“We have a high-school driven model of recruiting, and we are a destination school,” Mathis said, meaning most of their students are recruited right out of high school. Notably, about 94% of the student population is from out of state.
WyoTech’s curriculum goes beyond mechanical skills. It also emphasizes interviewing skills, business acumen, personal appearance, dress codes and a heavy emphasis on attendance.
“Employers love us because our students are used to working a full day, and we have a strict professionalism policy,” Mathis said as he stood in a veritable forest of big machinery — shiny semi trucks, towering farm equipment and rows of engines.
While Mathis’ leadership has lead to unprecedented growth for the trade school, his vision extends far and beyond the present. WyoTech currently has plans to add another 90,000-square-foot building to the campus to expand its student body capacity.
“We’re growing faster than I can construct buildings,” Mathis said. By 2030, he hopes to have 10,000 students attending WyoTech. At the rate the school is currently growing, it’s on track to achieve that goal.
Mathis explained WyoTech is very important to the economic health of Laramie, as it is one of the largest private employers in the community. He wants to keep the momentum going.
Beyond the growth of the school, Mathis envisions a complete shift in conversations about education and the trades. He stressed technical training is a legitimate, fulfilling and profitable career path, and he hopes that he and the institution of WyoTech can continue to educate the public about the value of the trades.
“America is going to decline if we don’t have tradespeople,” Mathis said.
His vision and passion for WyoTech’s mission, and technical education, in general, is palpable.