Where the great jobs are in Utah: Aerospace and other STEM careers (if you can find housing)

Many Utahns may not be aware of how dynamic the aerospace industry is in Utah – and how badly it needs workers. I wasn’t fully cognizant of it either, until I attended (via Zoom) a meeting of the Utah Foundation board earlier this week and heard presentations from industry, education and military leaders.

One indication of the vigor of the industry is the number of current job openings – thousands of them. Northrop Grumman alone, which already employs 7,000 people in Utah, has 635 job openings. “Utah is a great place to live and we are actively recruiting for a wide range of jobs,” said Mike Fuller, a Northrop Grumman executive.

I was amazed at the variety of jobs available in the industry. And these are terrific jobs that pay well. Young people who want to be part of something great – like supporting space exploration, protecting America from enemies, and creating clean energy – really ought to consider a career in the aerospace industry.

Parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors of young people all should help get them excited about STEM education and preparation for a great career in science and technology. That’s where the good jobs are. And while all of them require post-high school training, many, many excellent jobs require only associate degrees or technical certificates – not four-year degrees.

Jobs in the industry cover a wide range of disciplines: Engineering (civil, mechanical, electrical, software, systems, etc.), IT professionals, cybersecurity, supply chain specialists, advanced materials (composites, alloys, carbon fiber, ceramics, etc.), computer science, financial analysts,  production controllers, acquisition program managers, sheet metal mechanics, plastics fabricators, and on and on.

Want to have a meaningful career? Consider that Northrup-Grumman, just one of many aerospace firms in Utah, builds boosters for NASA rockets, helps send space capsules around the moon, supports private space launches, builds components for commercial airplanes and the military, supports the nation’s ICBM deterrent force, has a large cybersecurity contingent, and does many other exciting things.

Hill Air Force Base itself directly or indirectly (through contracting companies) hires thousands of skilled workers to support the base’s critical defense missions.

Chanel Flores, representing the Utah Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Initiative, said the organization surveyed 40 aerospace companies and the No. 1 challenge for all of them is finding skilled workers.

Weber State University Pres. Brad Mortensen said Utah’s higher education system, including technical colleges, are doing everything possible to graduate young people ready to work in the industry. That effort includes a lot of partnerships with industry groups like that Utah Defense Alliance and Northern Utah Economic Alliance. But the jobs available far outpace what Utah’s education system can produce. Thus, companies have to recruit workers from out of state.

Mortensen said the education and workforce training effort needs to be as big, as urgent, and as important today as was the building of the transcontinental railroad many years ago. He said the state, the Legislature, cities, counties and education entities can’t afford to spend any time fighting over turf. “We all need to collaborate and cooperate.” It must be an all-hands-on-deck initiative.   

Another major crisis facing the industry and the military is the availability and high cost of housing. Mike Moore, representing Hill Air Force Base, said young airmen simply cannot find housing they can afford, either to rent or buy. “It’s a serious crisis,” he said. All of the panel participants said if housing prices continue to rise, and if housing simply isn’t available, Utah will lose its competitive edge and companies and workers will go elsewhere.

Utah Transit Authority Board Chair Carlton Christensen said UTA has a van pool vehicle going every day to Malad, Idaho, to deliver workers to HAFB. Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said it’s critical that housing, transportation, education and workforce all be considered holistically because they are interrelated. They all impact each other either positively or negatively.   

Peter Reichard, president of Utah Foundation, asked the panel what happens if Utah doesn’t solve the workforce and housing crises. Mike Fuller, from Northrop-Grumman, said if Utah doesn’t get it right, some other state will, and Utah will suffer. But he expressed optimism that Utah shown a great ability and willingness to innovate, collaborate and step up to challenges. “We have to come together and find solutions to these problems, and I’m confident we can.”