High Marks

Utah’s Education Prepares the Workforce of Tomorrow

Candace M. Little

March 1, 2011

Ensuring the State’s young workforce is well educated and ready to meet the demands of industry takes strategic planning, along with the help of  State programs and the collaborative efforts of public and higher education along with the private sector.

Utah boasts the youngest population in the nation by far, with a median age of just 28.7. Utah’s citizens are well educated; more than 90 percent over the age of 25 have earned a high school diploma, a figure that ranks Utah among the top five states in the nation. Nearly 29 percent of Utah’s workforce has earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, a number that is also above the national average.

Public-Private Partnerships

To achieve its educational goals and develop an educated, skilled workforce, Utah brings together educational institutions with businesses, trade organizations, government agencies and community organizations. For example, the State recently launched the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP), which helps develop the workforce in targeted industries by enlisting the cooperation of local colleges and universities.

One UCAP project, for instance, brings together Weber State University with business and government leaders to accelerate the growth of the aerospace and defense industry in Utah through new and enhanced certifications and degrees.

Another important initiative is Workforce Innovation and Regional Economic Development, or the WIRED initiative, which began in 2006 with a $5.16 million federal grant given to the State to use for a program designed to create a larger talent pool for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) based careers. Tami Goetz, Utah state science advisor, says WIRED has brought industry, academia and government together in a synergistic manner.  

Under the WIRED initiative, biotechnology in the state education system has grown immensely. High schools offer biotech lab courses, and Utah companies have students right out of high school ready to wear the lab coat and centrifuge specimens. “It’s not enough to just work with our undergraduate students who are engaged in STEM—we need to go younger,” says Goetz.

For students interested in furthering their biotech education, the state has garnered funding from various private and public organizations and paved the way for Utah Valley University to offer a four-year degree in biotechnology, with its courses being taught off campus as well at the Salt Lake Community College.   

Another important program is the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, which provides major funding for higher education projects that create novel technologies to be commercialized through new business ventures. USTAR provides funding for university-based research teams as well as research facilities that focus on areas such as biomedical technology, brain medicine, energy, digital media, imaging technology and nanotechnology.

USTAR has recruited more than 40 top researchers to the state from diverse institutions such as Harvard University, UCLA, the University of North Carolina and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. To date, these high-powered “research rainmakers” have attracted two dollars in out-of-state funding for every dollar the state of Utah has invested.

Under the direction of USTAR’s Regional Technology Outreach centers, USTAR interns—many of whom are MBA candidates at local universities—have provided market assessment and analysis, product prototyping assistance and other commercialization services to researchers and entrepreneurs throughout the state. Engineering and business students in the USTAR program have gained invaluable experience bringing new companies and products to market.

Some of the projects USTAR interns work on stem from USTAR’s Technology Commercialization Grant program. The program has supported 76 projects yielding more than 30 new prototypes and a dozen new companies in the last year.

Head of the Class

The Utah system of higher education includes 10 colleges and universities, four private institutions and nine other accredited institutions dynamically contributing to the economy and the state’s future. Accomplishments of Utah institutes of higher education are diverse. For example, 16 Westminster College students made up one-third of the United States Olympic freestyle snow ski team in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and Weber State University offers courses focusing on unique subjects like examining the societal impact of computer gaming.

Brigham Young University has been named a world leader in animation by Peter Catmull, Pixar president. When visiting the campus in 2008, Catmull said, “It's amazing to suddenly see that BYU is producing the best in the industry. It's the perception not just at Pixar but also at the other studios that something pretty remarkable is happening here." BYU’s animation center has been awarded 10 College Television Awards, commonly known as “Student Emmys,” from the Academy of Television and Sciences, the same organization that gives out the Oscars.

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