A special thanks to the moderator, Rona Rahlf, CEO of the Utah Valley Chamber, for moderating the discussion.
- LEE ADAMSON, Utah Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau
- JON ANDERSON, Anderson CRG
- STEVE CALDWELL, Utah Valley Home Builders
- JOHN CURTIS, Provo City
- RUSS FOTHERINGHAM, Economic Development Corporation of Utah
- BRANDON FUGAL, CBC Advisors
- JOHN GARFIELD, Provo Marriott
- DIXON HOLMES, Provo City Economic Development
- STAN LOCKHART, IM Flash Technologies
- JAMES MOYES, Redstone Advisors
- TERI NEWELL, Utah Department of Transportation
- JOHN PILMER, Pilmer PR & Marketing
- JOHN RICHARDS, Startup Ignition
- JEFF ROSSI, Cushman & Wakefield | Commerce
- Mary Scott, Fishbowl Inventory
- DANNY WHEELER, Utah Valley Convention Center
What are Utah County’s greatest economic strengths and weaknesses?
HOLMES: The startups coming out of Utah Valley. And these aren’t just one and two people operations (although those, of course, are very critical because one and two person operations tend to double and then continue to double). But those like Qualtrics, Vivint that make it very big and become unicorns, that’s one of the strongest assets for Utah County.
ANDERSON: One of our main assets is the language-capable, highly-educated workforce.
CURTIS: With that language ability comes an incredible work ethic and a fearlessness that millennials have right now. It’s really pretty inspiring. They wake up every morning convinced they’re going to change the world. And they do.
ANDERSON: Part of that fearlessness comes from the missionary ethic, where we have a lot of returned missionaries who go and knock on doors. One of the hardest things you can do. And they become fearless.
ANDERSON: One of our strengths is the recreational opportunities. It’s really unparalleled in many ways to have the mountains and the lakes and the rivers just 10 or 20 minutes away. It helps us attract and keep workers.
FUGAL: Our greatest strength is arguably our institutional base. We’re a college town. BYU and UVU, which is now the largest institution in the state, gives Utah County a competitive edge. It helps spur job growth, job creation. Having a ready-made workforce to recruit from is a key advantage.
ROSSI: The transportation corridor, although it’s going through some growing pains right now, is a great benefit. Compare it to San Francisco or New York or another big city, you can live anywhere along our Wasatch Front and be within a half an hour, 40 minutes.
FUGAL: Wouldn’t you say it’s one of our greatest challenges, though? You compare Utah County to Salt Lake County, I-215 and I-80, I-15, both fully built out. Light rail and commuter rail. And they’ve got Bangerter Highway. If I-15 gets shut down, we’re screwed.
ROSSI: We are going through some growing pains. But as we look at it from an outside perspective, those people coming in, they look at it completely differently. You can live in Park City and be in Lehi in 45 minutes to an hour. You can have any sort of backyard or urban landscape.
As we went through the site selection process with Adobe, one of the main things we focused on was transportation. We spent a great deal of time understanding where their employees were living now because they loved the Utah County base that they had as Omniture. But as Adobe, they expected they would be bringing in new groups, they’d be bringing in people from San Francisco, they’d be relocating people internationally. So they had that concept of how do we give people an urban landscape, how do we give people that kind of life they want to live in the middle of a mountain landscape and still connect everyone and still have an eye to growth? Our transportation corridor shines from that perspective.
ADAMSON: We found with some of the larger convention groups that Frontrunner is actually very attractive to them. People can get from the airport to Provo. One thing that maybe we could improve is Sunday service in the future. Because a lot of the big convention groups will either arrive or depart on a Sunday. So that’s been a little bit of a challenge.
ROSSI: One of our biggest challenges is our low unemployment. When you look at all of the growth we’re projecting over the next several years with groups like Vivint Solar and Ancestry and all of these other companies that are growing very quickly, we need to support that growth. Where do we do that besides these great colleges that we have here in Utah and Salt Lake County?
HOLMES: That challenge, though, presents opportunity for the non-traditional education, boot camp coding campuses, training and teaching how to code and program. That needs to be done at an elementary school level, and middle school, high school. With that tight workforce, along with the traditional universities, which are good, there needs to be other opportunities for education for workforce development.
GARFIELD: We have a college town, a university town, but there are positions out there that are lower-income positions that are very hard to fill. So it does present challenges.
FOTHERINGHAM: Actually, we have another source for the labor market, and that is the Mountainland Applied Technology College. We probably have had more people who are looking to come here comment on the strength of our MATC here in the valley or the ATC program in the state generally than we have on the universities. And the MATC here is growing faster than any of the other ATCs in the state.
CALDWELL: One of our biggest problems is labor. You know, everybody’s college educated. Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur. And we’re looking for roofers or plumbers or anyone who can run a backhoe, and that’s not available. It’s really going to change our industry in the near future. It’s a huge demand right now and I don’t see anything making it better in the near future.
PILMER: All of this growth is going to spur a lot of byproducts, including air pollution. I know the mayor and the Clean Air Task Force are doing some things to figure out the impacts down the road. But yellow snow doesn’t sell really well. So we’ve got to keep our quality of life public persona—not just the PR of it, but the real deal—we need to keep it clean and get it cleaner if we anticipate all this growth coming to our valley.
LOCKHART: Well, you have to be careful because there’s a balance. And we have some of the cleanest air we’ve had in the last 150 years in this state and in this valley right now. So we can talk about this all the time. But there are just some things that can be very punitive that can cause actually us to kill the golden goose instead of getting it to lay the golden egg.
CURTIS: In Utah County our biggest source of air pollution is automobiles and not business. Much of that is education and helping people understand the ways driving impacts air quality. But I’ll tell you what, if you’re recruiting somebody into your business, or a business into the valley, and it happens to be an inversion day, you’re dead.
LOCKHART: But 20 years ago it was even worse. In fact, when I came to BYU 35 years ago, we would get a layer of ash on our cars every morning from what Geneva Steel would produce all night long. Things have gotten a lot better. It’s just that we have more people living here, so they’re demanding more and for us to do things better. If you want to really clean up the air, you have to start imposing restrictions on who can drive and when they can drive. And people just aren’t going to put up with that.
How do we perpetuate our culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism?
ROSSI: We have several groups within the community that are trying to foster entrepreneurship. We have Lehi Startups. We have the Silicon Slopes group. And we have these VCs who are coming in who are recognizing that. We’ve had $667 million invested by VCs in the first three quarters of this year.
LOCKHART: IM Flash has just invented a product that is a thousand times faster than our previous flash memory product. We’re just starting to produce it in our Lehi factory. And our competitors are just blown away by it. The customer base that buys flash memory, which goes in just about every piece of consumer electronics that we have, they can’t wait to tap into the power of this new technology. Just to make one flash memory chip, there’s like 3,000 patents in each chip. So not only is it happening on an entrepreneurial level with innovation, but it’s happening in some of the largest companies in the world right in our own backyard.
SCOTT: We talk a lot about innovation, but how many companies in Utah are fully employee owned? Are you willing to make your employees owners in it? There’s 103 people in Fishbowl, so they watch where payroll is going. And they make different decisions. Because if you don’t feel accountable for that innovation, you can build the flash drives but do you really care if it brings back a profit? They need that ownership. If they’re just renting, we all know how renters treat a house. But if it’s their house and they own it, they’re going to sweep the carpet a little more.
RICHARDS: We’re doing a really good job commingling the predominant religious LDS culture with people wearing lots of piercings and working together at the same companies. A lot of workers are coming here and not feeling uncomfortable being non-LDS as much as I felt 10 years ago. There’s a good balancing act going on.
My real concern is women in positions in technology, business and in entrepreneurship. It’s still just as hard to attract women to these careers as it was when I first got to Utah from Seattle. People that come from outside still roll their eyes at us at how few women are participating. If I wanted to put on a conference with the top 20 greatest female entrepreneurs in Utah, I’d have a hard time getting five or six that would be leaders and want to talk about it.
And there are so few women studying computer science and coding here compared to other parts of the country. We’re lagging in that area and I don’t know what to do about it. But it’s getting to be a problem because it’s stopping other areas from taking us as seriously as they need to because, we’re down in the 110th percentile where other places are at 45 percent.
SCOTT: So many women work; they just don’t tell you guys. They have businesses all across the state. They’re just maybe not on the surface.
RICHARDS: But where are the women who are software engineers? Where are the women that are starting scalable ventures that will create wealth and jobs?
CURTIS: One of the problems we have is that the system is geared around youth and those entering the workplace and coming out of college. If we can figure out how to adjust that system to capture women who are 40 or 50 with time now and skill sets who are ready to come back into the workplace—because a lot of them have been out of the workplace or out of education for a number of years.
PILMER: I find some of the greatest talent in my industry is among women who had gone home to raise children and yet they want to keep their skills up. So our company’s been doing teleworking since the get-go. And the more companies that adapt to the woman’s paradigm of trying to do it all, the more we’ll see success coming out of the woodwork. Because there’s a lot of skills out there, a lot of college-trained people that are just putting their priorities in different places. But the technology we have makes it possible to telework and connect wherever we are in the world.
WHEELER: I wonder, 10, 15 years from now, after the change in missionary age, how that will change with women and the workplace. I would imagine that 10, 15 years from now we’ll see a shift of some sort.
RAHLF: I held a discussion with Alison Lew at Provo City—we got a group of women entrepreneurs together to ask them what resources they need to stimulate their ability to grow their business or interact in the business community. The number one thing we heard was childcare. Because they are juggling their children with doing work in the home. They say, if you ask us to come and participate in something like this, are you going to have a nursery? Why don’t you have a nursery? You want me here, but you’re not providing those kinds of things.
As business, it’s probably something down the road that we’ve got to figure out. It was loud and clear from the women that were there.
LOCKHART: I’m an ambassador for STEM education in the state. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to reach out to young women. I was recently at a Women Tech Council luncheon where 800 women were in the room who are doing incredible things in the business world. And I just couldn’t help but think we need to get all 330,000 of our school-aged children into that room to see these really successful, highly motivated, innovative women. Because they were quite inspiring if we can just get the future generation to see what they’re doing. These are non-traditional paths that we’re asking them to take, and we need to have really entrepreneurial, innovative women step up and be the example so that young women can say, “I can do that.”
ROSSI: Diversity overall is a challenge in Utah County and across our state. Although we’re getting a little bit more diverse—it is happening—but it’s not happening as quickly as lots of other major MSAs are. There are lots of companies, especially the Silicon Valley groups, that ask, “What’s your percentage of non-white males in the workplace?”
And, well “It’s not good,” is the answer. It’s getting better, but diversity as a whole is a big challenge for Utah, especially for companies who are coming into Utah.
FUGAL: I was working with a Bay area company a few months ago that was looking to bring 500 jobs to start, and looking to grow to over a thousand over 24 months. When their executive team flew in, five of the seven were women, and they were all under the age of 30, and I was the only one at the table with a tie on. And they were concerned. One of the first questions I was hit with was relative to diversity. And, frankly, they ended up selecting Denver. The team didn’t feel like our culture reflected their workforce.
MOYES: We have to be really careful to protect the culture. That’s a lot of the reason why people come here. We can’t be all things to all people. Although we have to be cognizant of the trends that are out there. We have to protect that culture and recognize that’s a part of the reason why people do come here. We have a culture of technology here. We have an educated workforce. If we chase things, trying to be something different to other people, we will lose out on opportunities that we otherwise might have had. It really becomes important to recognize what our core competence really is as a county and not try and chase things. But at the same time, not being so rigid that we stick to items that may be hurting us.
With the projections of our population doubling in the next 20 years, how does that shape your thinking for your business growth over the next 20 years? Is it the same demographic? How do you capture that growth? How do you help fuel that growth?
NEWELL: At UDOT, we’re looking 30 years out or even starting to look at 40 years out. Probably our biggest challenges are trying to take care of something like I-15 and get people their quick trip to work, while also being sensitive to things that Mayor Curtis holds near and dear, and that’s what the feel of the streets are in his community that are state roadways.
Then also there’s BRT. We certainly want to encourage everything we can about transit because at some point 30, 40 years from now, we can’t build our roadways wide enough to accommodate everything that needs to happen.
Right now I think we’re doing fine. One of the biggest challenges I see in Utah County is how fast it’s growing. Being aware of what’s going on with development, with the business community, is really important so that we’re not reacting. We don’t want to be in a position of reacting or it will be much more difficult to provide good transportation.
FOTHERINGHAM: I’m going to go back to air quality for a minute. I don’t want to regulate IM Flash out of what they do. But we have to do something. Because right now all along the Wasatch Front—it’s not exclusive to Utah County—we cannot have a lot of the people who are interested in coming here come relocate along the Wasatch Front because of the EPA’s regulations. So we’re going to have to do something to balance it out.
You know, 53 percent of the companies that come to EDCU, who are interested in coming to Utah, are manufacturing companies. My major goal is high tech manufacturing for Utah County. To do that, we’re going to have to really address the air quality concerns, other environmental concerns, because we’re out of the game right now. A company that had 600 jobs, they’re going down to Juab County now because they can’t come to Utah County. They can’t even look at sites in Utah County, Salt Lake County, Davis County and Weber County.
We need to talk to our legislators. We’re now talking about new incentives that will allow us to be more competitive with other areas when people are coming here and realize they’re going to have certain equipment that they’re going to put on their manufacturing facilities in order to be here. In the past we’ve gotten a D grade for these incentives that the state of Utah offers. And we get As and Bs in everything else.