Preparing Utah’s Workforce: The Case for STEM

By Jon Pierpont

Executive Director, Utah Department of Workforce Services

While speaking at the annual Economic Development Summit this spring, Natalie Gochnour told Governor Gary R. Herbert he needed a new goal for Utah’s economy. Far more than a simple applause line, this statement was a poignant insight into the future and seemed to ask the question: what’s next?

Since November 2011, Utah has created 97,300 jobs—inching closer to the Governor’s goal of 100,000 jobs in 1,000 days. Our unemployment rate recently dipped lower than it’s been in five years, our job growth continues to outpace the national average and Utahns are optimistically reentering the workforce to look for jobs.

Not only is our economy bucking national trends right and left, we are rounding a proverbial corner as our focus turns from the dwindling effects of the recession to the burgeoning potential of the future.

With each and every graduating student and expanding business—we are building tomorrow’s economy today. By strengthening education through a special focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—more commonly known as STEM—we will ensure tomorrow’s workforce is prepared for a slew of 21st century opportunities.

STEM education builds a stronger and more nimble workforce. This effort is not just necessary for our economy—it is also beneficial for our people. The unemployment rate for Utahns with a technology degree is 1.6%, compared to 2.9% for a degree in any field. STEM degree holders also enjoy higher wages—on average $10,000 more per year than all degree holders. These fields are also growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the United States economy will add nearly one million science and engineering jobs by 2022.

To help build this pipeline of innovation, the Department of Workforce Services will soon announce details of a new grant program to help Utah schools enhance and expand their STEM education. We will provide new funding to help districts build curriculum that inspires students about the possibilities of STEM. We want to unleash their curiosity in the classroom, so they will one day unlock their potential in the workforce.

STEM education benefits all, but it can have a particularly powerful impact on Utahns stuck in the grip of intergenerational poverty. We have a unique opportunity to empower our underserved populations with innovative tools through STEM education.

Utah’s future economy will have to be stronger and more nimble than ever before—and our workforce will need to keep pace. The same collaboration between education, business, and public sector leaders that established Utah as the nation’s premier economy is needed now more than ever to maintain and enhance our trajectory toward a future of continued growth and innovation.

Utah already powered out of the recession like no other state in the nation. Now we are poised at a moment of great opportunity to leap into the future through a concerted focus on STEM education for our youth.

Utah’s greatest resource is its people. Investing in our workforce today will ensure economic success tomorrow—and for generations to come.