Lawmakers say more Utahns need to get post-secondary education to keep the state economy humming into the next decade, but the degree or certificate is just half the battle residents also need to get good jobs.
Since demand for employees skilled in science, technology, engineering and math is expected to grow several times faster than in other occupations, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, said students should be encouraged to prepare for those jobs.
"The American workforce is in crisis largely because we are not providing the kind of trained workforce our industries need," he said, saying that not addressing the gap would be like "fiddling as Rome is burning."
It does seem to be particularly difficult to keep students studying those fields, known collectively as STEM, said Georgetown University professor Jeff Strohl, who was invited to speak at the legislature's Education Task Force meeting on Wednesday.
"For every 100 STEM-qualified high school students, eight major in STEM," he said.
More change their minds before graduation, and still fewer actually work in one of those professions. Around the country, about 40 percent of those jobs are held by people who don't have a degree in one of those fields, he said.
In Utah, he said, the production of STEM graduates currently lines up fairly well with demand. And while Strohl agreed that employment data can be useful for college students, especially those who are about to graduate, there is a dearth nationally of such guidance what he called a "crisis in college counseling."
Other lawmakers cautioned Wednesday that the state shouldn't go too far in pushing one field of study over another, since labor market demands can change rapidly.
"I'm a skeptic, to some degree, of trying to artificially change people's choices and decisions based on data from the economy as it is right now," said Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay. "Five to 10 years from now, there could be a glut of engineers."
People are often hired because they have a degree, she said, not because of their exact field of study. The point of education, said Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, is to teach people "how to learn" rather than "what to learn."
"I think if we over-do policy, we do gum up the works," he said. "Sometimes less is more."
Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature endorsed Gov. Gary Herbert's goal of bringing the portion of Utahns with a postsecondary degree or certificate to 66 percent by the year 2020, a number based on projected job market requirements. Since about 43 percent of the population have such a qualification now, it's an ambitious goal.
And students' majors are far from the only issue facing higher education in Utah. The state has a higher-than-average portion of people who start college but don't earn a degree. "We do know there are a lot of talented young people who don't finish college," Strohl said.
Another troubling indicator for Utah is the slow pace of college enrollment growth for young white people. At 10 percent between 1994 and 2009, it's far less than their 32 percent growth in population during that time a puzzling indicator for which there is not yet a clear explanation.