By national standards they are young and they are smart. "They" are the individuals that make up Utah's workforce. They are also Utah's greatest strength and most competitive advantage in terms of economic development.
Could that strength one day become the state's Achilles' heel?
According to the Georgetown University study "Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Demand Through 2018," 66 percent of all jobs in Utah (1 million) will require some postsecondary training beyond high school by 2018. Currently, only about 50 percent of Utah's workforce meets that criterion.
"We project a significant gap between the academic preparedness required by Utah's business and what is currently being accomplished, "says Vicki Varela, advisor to Prosperity 2020 and president of Vicki Varela Strategic Communications, Inc.
EDCUtah President & CEO Jeff Edwards agrees, saying Utah could lose its competitive edge if more isn't done to invest in the state's K-12 and higher education systems. "But we now have a way to advance education in Utah," he adds.
The "way" Edwards refers to was actually launched on January 11. It's called Prosperity 2020--a movement to propel Utah to enduring prosperity and the strongest economy in the nation through its educated and trained workforce. Prosperity 2020 was launched under the leadership of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce; however, the movement is supported by a variety of groups and individuals, including 12 Utah chambers of commerce, the Governor's Office of Economic Development (GOED), United Way of Salt Lake, the State Board of Education, the State Board of Regents, Citizens for Education and Excellence, EDCUtah, Friends for Utah Higher Education, Junior Achievement of Utah and the Utah Technology Council.
In essence, Prosperity 2020 is founded on the principle that great businesses are built with human capital--well-trained and educated workers. Mark Bouchard, senior managing director in the commercial real estate firm CB Richard Ellis, is founding chair. He says through the Prosperity 2020 movement "Utah has the potential to deploy the largest youth population in the country as the greatest workforce in the country."
"Prosperity 2020 involves an impressive group of partners," says Edwards. "This is a strong coalition of business and community leaders that are serious about helping to strengthen Utah's educational systems. Further, there has been mistrust between the business community, the legislature, and the education community. Prosperity 2020 is bringing everyone to the table to rally around the critical issue of educational achievement."
Varela says research shows that a person's earnings and a society's wealth are tied to educational achievement--those with the knowledge and skills to create value will prosper. Thus, the goal of Prosperity 2020 is to raise the bar for Utah students so that 90 percent of elementary students will achieve math and reading proficiency and two-thirds of Utahns 20 years of age and older will obtain college degrees or skilled trade certificates.
Three Critical Challenges
Utah faces three critical challenges regarding its workforce of the future:
- Utah is experiencing a generational shift in its ethnic and racial makeup. By 2050 nearly one-third of Utah's population will be comprised of racial and ethnic minorities; however, there is a growing disparity between the number of white children that graduate from high school verses minority children. Essentially, Utah's minority children are being left behind.
- Utah test scores are below that of peer states. A landmark study by the Utah Foundation says Utah's math, reading and science scores over the past two decades have been less than states with similar demographics. In fact, among its peers, Utah most often ranks last in proficiency tests by the National Assessment of Educational Progress—and the gap has grown over the last two decades. In addition, Utah's national rankings in test scores have fallen significantly.
- Based upon current trends, Utah's workforce will be unprepared to meet the demand of skilled jobs that require either a degree or certificate. According to the Georgetown study, between the decade from 2008 to 2018, new jobs in Utah requiring postsecondary education and training will grow by 202,000 while jobs for high school graduates and dropouts will grow by 97,000. During the same period it is projected that Utah will create 477,000 job vacancies both from new jobs and from job openings due to retirement. Meanwhile, 308,000 of these job vacancies will be for those with postsecondary credentials, while some 126,000 will be for high school graduates and only 43,000 for high school dropouts.
To meet these challenges, Varela says Prosperity 2020 lays out broad guiding principles and key goals that will help increase the number of degreed individuals and workers with skilled certificates in trade areas. She says the movement also seeks to measure progress yearly and will lay out additional goals accordingly.
"This year the movement is advancing all-day kindergarten for at-risk children and initiatives to increase math and reading competency," Varela adds. "Students don't drop out of school in their senior year. They start dropping out in elementary school if they don't develop the basic skills they need."
According to a recent survey by pollster Dan Jones & Associates, Utahns strongly support optional extended-day kindergarten, while the majority of Utahns are also willing to pay more in taxes if the additional money is directed to public education. Half of the survey respondents said Utah's schools are not adequately funded in order to provide a quality education, while 17 percent said they "probably are not" adequately funded.
A key objective for the Prosperity 2020 movement is to maintain funding in Utah's educational system for the additional 12,000 to 15,000 students that enter the system every year. With regard to higher education, Varela says Prosperity 2020 vigorously advocates that the state legislature maintain existing funding levels this year.
"Our colleges and universities are economic engines that we cannot afford to scale back," she adds. "Education is the path to enduring prosperity. When we talk about our education system meeting the demands of business, we are really talking about people's pocket books and their ability to earn a living. It's also about being able to solve community problems."
In an effort to share the Prosperity 2020 vision with state legislators, Varela says a team is working on Capitol Hill and "so far, there is a lot of buy in."
Other areas of focus for the movement involve the development of mission-based funding for schools and more needs-based grants for college students. Varela says many students quit working on their degrees because they can't afford the tuition required to stay in school.
Edwards and Varela note that Prosperity 2020 is a long-term effort. "It will take a consistent effort over the next 10 years for the movement to achieve effectual change," Edwards adds.