Representatives of three manufacturing companies told a legislative panel Wednesday that although their industry is making a decent turnaround from the recession, the biggest hurdle they continue to face is finding skilled workers.
An interim committee of the Legislature had asked the officials to appear to address steps the state could take to remove barriers and encourage success and growth. In general, it was told that Utah is an attractive place to do business but that there are obstacles.
Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said Utah's manufacturing industry has been on an upswing, citing data from the National Association of Manufacturers that show 118,900 workers are employed this year in the sector (9.4 percent of Utah's total workforce), compared with 111,100 in 2010.
The number will grow, so long as businesses can find skilled labor in Utah or get it elsewhere.
Paul Whitlock, director of planning for IM Flash Technologies in Lehi, said his company hired 59 percent of about 100 new workers from outside Utah last year.
"Kids in school don't aspire to do this," Whitlock said. "We need to inspire them and make them excited."
IM Flash Technologies manufactures memory chips for electronic devices.
Rob Despain, vice president of business development at Petersen Inc., said he needs more machinists as his business grows.
"Our workforce is aging," Despain said. "We are starving for skilled workers. The challenge is where do we find these people. We would take on 100 more employees if we could get them."
West Ogden-based Petersen specializes in producing equipment and parts for aerospace engineering, mining and industrial projects. Despain said his company frequently uses apprenticeships to train new workers, but it would help if more Utah colleges and universities better prepared students to operate large machines.
"The people who come to us as machinists, we have success with them," Despain said.
Layne Webb, senior director of operations for Edwards Lifesciences in Draper, echoed Despain's plea for students to be better prepared in the basics.
"We are very willing to train people," Webb said. "But where we find a challenge is a lack of a basic skill set, such as writing clearly, math skills and science understanding. This is an industry constantly changing and innovating. If the basic skill sets are there, training is a quick process."
To address the companies' issues, members of the interim committee on Economic Development and Workforce Services said lawmakers should meet with officials from the state's colleges to see if there is a way to collaborate on ways to expand the size of engineering classes.