Guest opinion: CTE can accelerate Utah’s economic performance, even in a strong economy

Rex Shipp 01

The most recent jobs report shows Utah’s unemployment rate dropped again, while job growth was robust at nearly double the national rate. While Utah’s economy is firing on all cylinders, what I find most encouraging is our determination to continue to fine-tune our economic engine. 

Case in point, the recent announcement that the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) and the Utah Dept. of Workforce Services (Workforce Services) have formed an alliance to better connect Utah students who take career and technical education (CTE) classes and earn Career Skills Certificates with businesses looking for individuals with relevant skills and aptitudes. In an economy zipping along at what economists consider full employment, this type of cooperation and innovative thinking can make a big difference. 

Today in Utah, CTE certificates are available to high school students in 16 career clusters and more than 200 classes. These cover a variety of iCTE courses taught in Utah schools including everything from manufacturing and construction trades; to information technology and health science; to business and accounting. These classes teach real, in-demand skills to students on the cusp of entering the workforce. 

Utah businesses can and should give their input on what is being taught in the classroom. Their perspective is invaluable since they know better than anyone exactly what they need to grow the bottom line and create new jobs. Using an online evaluation tool, any Utah business can review the educational standards taught in our schools and are used as the benchmark for the certifications. It’s a simple process to review the certification standards and is well worth the few minutes it requires to ensure education and workforce alignment. Just last year, Utah students earned more than 130,000 credentials that make them more attractive to potential employers because they take the guesswork out of determining whether a potential hire really has the skill set required to hit the ground running. 

These CTE certificates help students who move onto higher education and those who enter the workforce right out of high school. Not only can CTE certifications help students secure employment to help finance their post-secondary education, it can open their eyes to career opportunities that become available by earning an associate’s, bachelor’s or advanced degree.

In the 2019 general legislative session, I worked with my colleagues and leadership to secure funding for Student Success Accounts. These online profiles will help students track and stack credentials and share them with potential employers, making the skills they earn even more valuable as employers can offer internships or prefered interview status to students who have earned applicable certifications. 

One of the great benefits of the Student Success Accounts is helping businesses find talent pools in rural Utah. So much of our skilled workforce is trained and resides outside of the Wasatch Front, but understanding how to identify and access that talent has been very difficult. Now, as businesses are looking for areas to grow, and as costs continue to rise along the Wasatch Front, businesses can more confidently expand and provide more jobs across the state.

I applaud the partnership between Workforce Services and USBE as an example of how state policymakers are not just willing, but determined to ensure workers have the opportunities to succeed while businesses have the talent they need. We all benefit when we work together. 

Our glowing economic report also showed that two states, Nevada and Idaho, posted slightly higher job creation figures. Even as Utah excels economically, the competition will not rest. Efforts to better connect skills our students develop with the needs of the workforce are critical.  

Even with the engine firing on all cylinders, this is no time to take our foot off the gas. 

Rex Shipp serves the Utah 72nd District (Iron County) in the Utah House of Representatives