Ensuring Utah’s greatest economic strength doesn’t become its greatest weakness

Utah’s super-hot economy is a two-edged sword. New and expanding businesses are creating jobs faster than we can fill them, which is a great problem to have, unless you are an expanding business that can’t find the workers you need to sustain your expansion.

Failing to meet the labor force needs of Utah businesses can be a bottleneck to further economic growth. The labor problem is especially acute across the Wasatch Front. This month’s “Prosperity Project” column is dedicated to examining the workforce issue and ways it might be addressed.

Workforce is a topic that comes up regularly in my conversations with government, education and business leaders. Two leaders with their eyes on the state’s labor challenges are Val Hale, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), and Jon Pierpont, executive director of Workforce Services. Recently, I queried Val and Jon regarding their thoughts about Utah’s workforce.

Addressing Our Workforce Needs

Val was quick to point out that Utah’s labor force is rated the best in the nation, which is a key decision point for businesses as they select Utah for their relocation and expansion efforts. But the hot economy makes the hiring effort highly competitive, especially for businesses that require workers with education and experience in manufacturing, science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The bottom line is that Utah needs more skilled workers. In fact, he said, businesses in nearly every industry in the state are finding it a challenge to hire enough skilled workers to fill available jobs. Utah is fortunate to have the youngest and fastest growing population in the nation, but that is not the complete solution.

“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer the question, ‘How do we get more people into the high-paying jobs that are so plentiful?’” he continued. “In-migration has helped. Forty percent of our population growth last year came from people who moved to our state.”

The factors needed to meet the labor force demands seem to be a combination of internal growth, in-migration and partnerships and initiatives that provide skilled workers for Utah businesses.

For example, he said, the state has expanded its Pathways program to produce more skilled workers in high-demand areas. The Pathways program began with Utah Aerospace Pathways, which has been preparing high school students and adult learners to fill high-paying jobs in the state’s aerospace industry and the related advanced composites sector. The Aerospace Pathways program has since become the template for other successful programs focused on diesel technology, life sciences and information technology.

To build on the momentum of these programs, Val said the state has launched “Talent Ready Utah,” which is a resource gateway for educators, industry and other stakeholders to align education to meet industry needs. The initiative includes job shadowing activities, internships, donations, industry tours and in-classroom presentations designed to promote programs that provide unemployed and underemployed adults with greater opportunities to receive training and certification in high-demand occupations.

Meanwhile, with so many job opportunities available, the Utah Department of Workforce Services is working hard to connect job seekers to these opportunities. Jon has described the current conditions as a “job seeker market.” He told me we need job seekers and anyone looking to improve their employment situation to realize now is the time to take that next step and get the training needed.

“Workforce Services is here to help with workshops, trainings and tools to connect people to these opportunities,” Jon said, emphasizing that people seeking support should go to jobs.utah.gov or visit one of the 30-plus employment centers throughout the state. In addition, Workforce Services has programs for specific population groups where there are unique challenges and needs. One example is a program designed to help single mothers in poverty find work while also helping employers fill jobs. Called “Invest in You Too,” the initiative is a 13-week career pathway program that helps cohorts of single mothers find work.

“There are numerous exciting efforts taking shape,” he continued. “The state is working hard to address the employment challenges from every angle: the needs of businesses, the needs of the unemployed and underemployed, single mothers, everyone. Gov. Gary Herbert’s ‘25KJobs’ initiative is another aspect of the effort to address Utah’s economic diversity and meet the workforce challenges across the state, not just along the Wasatch Front.”

With the 25K Jobs Initiative, the goal is to generate 25,000 jobs in the 25 counties of the Wasatch Front over the next four years and match up the available workforce with more employment opportunities.

Val explained that in many respects, Utah has two economies, the Wasatch Front economy and the rural Utah economy. While jobs are plentiful across the Wasatch Front, in some rural Utah areas there are more workers than available jobs. Hence, some of the workforce initiatives are long-term approaches, while other efforts can impact the labor shortage in both the short and long term. The STEM Action Center, which is a program within GOED, is an example of a longer-term solution. Val said the Center has been working with schools across the state to get more students engaged in STEM. The goal: to produce more graduates who are interested in STEM careers.

Jon and Val both emphasized that partnerships between Utah government, education, civic and industry leaders will always provide the best, longest lasting solutions. Utilizing those partnerships to find solutions for the workforce shortage is key to Utah maintaining its position as one of the top economies in the nation.