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Report: Utah Short on Qualified Workers, Wage Increase and Training Programs Could Help

West Valley City—Utah’s incredibly low unemployment rate has a dark side: companies, especially those in skilled trades, are having a tough time filling open positions.

The problem is a complex one, but the bottom line is that multiple organizations need to work together to solve it in order for Utah to keep thriving, according to a new report from the Utah Foundation.

Utah’s unemployment rate is extremely low—3.3 percent—and its underutilization rate is also far below the long-term average, at about 7 percent, said Christopher Collard, a research analyst with the Utah Foundation and the author of the report “Help Wanted: Workforce Participation, Wages, Job Desirability and Skills Gaps.” Meanwhile, he said, companies have openings that are sitting vacant.

“Companies can either recruit outside the state—the government could help by offering tax breaks for relocation incentive packages,” he said. “The other option is to aim to increase Utah’s labor force participation rate. … There is potential for companies to entice people to come back to work.”

The biggest group among those Utahns out of the workforce is women, Collard said. Addressing several things, including pay parity, flexible hours and opportunities for advancement, could help entice those women back into the workforce, he said. Higher wages overall could help to draw people across multiple groups back into the workforce, as well as make the state a more attractive prospect of relocation, he said.

“Utah’s earning and wages have been pretty stagnant, once you’ve accounted for inflation,” he said.

Another facet of the issue where there is ample room for improvement is in encouraging workers to get education and qualification—but not necessarily in the form of a four-year college degree.

“The American Dream in the U.S. has often been linked to getting a four-year degree, and that’s reflected in parental expectation,” he said, citing the report’s finding that 63 percent of parents expect their children to earn bachelor’s degrees, though only a third of Utahns historically do and only 29 percent of jobs in 2020 are anticipated to require one.

Richard Thorn, president and CEO of Associated General Contractors, said his industry has been facing a severe shortage of skilled workers such as electricians and plumbers.

“This is a big deal for our organization,” he said. “This is our organization’s single largest challenge right now, and that’s across all sectors.”

That holds true in general construction, as well, said Scott Parson, president and CEO for Staker Parson. Parson, who also sits on the Utah Foundation board, asked the foundation to look into the labor shortage to see if the problem was isolated to anecdotes and small-scale experience, or if it was widespread. He said he hopes the independence and non-partisanship of the foundation and its results help to spur changes in the government, community and educational institutions.

“The Utah Foundation is really well positioned to do research on a topic like this because they’re an independent group and not connected to any education or government group,” he said. “I think they can provide very sound information and inspire change in a problem that really is a challenge for us and our customers.”

Parson said the recent creation and success of the Pathways programs—collaborations between the state, educational institutions and partners of the programs’ respective industries—has been a good step in the right direction for encouraging students to get education and training that will help them in an industry that requires specific skills. Current Pathway programs include aerospace and medical technology, with a construction program under development.

Deneese Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College, which is heavily involved with the Pathways programs, said the school is striving to give students the education and expertise they’ll need for a satisfying career. However, she said, the responsibility is not on educational intuitions alone.

“The report is very clear this is a complex issue—it’s the responsibility of education, yes, but it’s also the responsibility of employers, parents and others. There are a lot of folks in our community that have a role in this,” she said.

One of the ways parents and K-12 teachers can help is by understanding and communicating that a four-year degree is not the only path to success, she said. SLCC’s IT program, for example, can be achieved as a typical degree or through various targeted certifications, she said.

“Going to college isn’t necessarily a four-year degree—it could be a certificate, a short one-year degree, a two-year Associate’s or a four-year degree,” she said. “Our parents, counselors and students need to understand that they can do really well for themselves and by their families with a certificate, one-year or two-year program. We need to change our perception on what post-secondary education means.”