The outdoors is Utah tech firms’ No. 1 recruiting tool

State leaders extol the economic importance of “protecting and preserving” Utah’s outdoor opportunities.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The hike along the West section of the Mormon Pioneer Trail from Affleck Park to Big Mountain Pass offers canyon views, numerous wildflowers, ample shade and requires a will to share the trail due to its popularity with mountain bikers. When it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, Utah tech companies’ best friend is the state’s outdoor recreation and the easy access to wilderness and public lands from Utah’s cities.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining talent, Utah tech companies’ best friend is the state’s outdoor recreation and the easy access to wilderness and public lands from Utah’s cities.

It’s more important than career advancement, pay, cost of living — even more than family.

That’s according to a survey of tech-sector employees conducted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, reinforcing the growing economic importance of Utah’s natural landscapes. Released this week, the survey found that nearly 80% of those queried said outdoor recreation was an important factor for relocating to Utah. The numbers were even bigger for tech workers who moved back to Utah.

Some of the findings amazed Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, although he was not surprised by the survey’s overall conclusions.

“There’s another number that really stood out to me,” Cox told reporters at a panel Tuesday, “and that was 85% of tech-sector employees who choose to stay in Utah despite a higher salary offer elsewhere said that outdoor recreation was the reason they chose to stay here. So you can’t pay people enough to leave once they get here and get to experience what we’re experiencing.”

But the governor and the other panelists, including House Speaker Brad Wilson and Rep. Doug Owens, cautioned that Utah is at risk of losing this competitive edge because of extreme crowding at established destinations, like the “Mighty 5” national parks and Little Cottonwood Canyon, and a dearth of facilities at countless other destinations on public lands.

“Speaker Wilson has really led the charge to invest in infrastructure for our public lands and for our public spaces, for our state parks, making sure that we don’t love these areas to death, that we have the resources necessary as people come to experience and enjoy them and that we’re expanding those recreation opportunities,” Cox said, referring to $85 million the Legislature authorized for recreation.

“We have incredible places in Utah that anywhere else would be national parks, but we just have an embarrassment of riches,” he continued. “And many of them don’t have parking lots and don’t have restrooms.”

Last fall, 254 tech employees representing 141 companies responded to the Gardner survey, which was commissioned by Utah Outdoor Partners, a nonprofit that promotes the economic value of the outdoor recreation.

“It’s beautiful,” one respondent said. “Nothing beats driving home to a view of the mountains, no matter how bad my day is, the majesty of my natural environment makes me feel blessed that I chose to move here.”

(Isaac Hale | Special to The Tribune) Becca Bytendorp, 16, pulls Bridger Holt, 4, onto an inflatable raft at Utah Lake near the American Fork Boat Harbor on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

A companion Gardner study, released in 2018, found that among tech-sector executives who located their businesses in Utah, recreational access to Utah’s public lands was the most important factor in their decision by far, ahead of the state’s business friendly tax structure and regulatory environment.

Technology now represents 18% of the Utah economy, according to Gardner’s director Natalie Gochnour, an associate dean of the U.’s David Eccles School of Business. Outdoor recreation, especially hiking, mountain biking and skiing, are important life-style component to those who work in this industry, she said.

“Utah’s tech sector is the fastest growing industry in the state while offering well-paying jobs that often encourage a healthy work-life balance,” states the 28-page report. “Utah’s easy access to wilderness offers many outdoor recreation opportunities year-round, and is therefore used as a recruitment tool for marketing Utah as a place where a work-life balance is accessible, enjoyable, and awe-inspiring.”

The outdoor lifestyle Utah’s landscapes make possible is a key reason why Utah has been the fastest-growing state in the nation. Cox noted that Utah is no longer in the top 10 for in-migration, largely, because of a housing crunch.

“But we are No. 1 in the country for people not leaving, for people staying,” Cox said. “We have the lowest percentage of out-migration of any state in the nation. That’s happening because people love it here. They love what we have and of course, outdoor recreation and public land are so important.”

Other tech-heavy states, such as California and Colorado, of course, are home to some of the nation’s most attractive coastal, desert and mountain landscapes, but access to those areas from the Bay Area or Denver can be frustrating.

While traffic congestion is clogging favorite Utah destinations on peak days, reaching the ski areas or red rock desert from Salt Lake City is still relatively easy most of the time. Still there is reason to fear for the future of Utah’s outdoor experience when you have to wait hours to enter Arches or Zion national parks or get mired in traffic tying to reach Alta Ski Area, said Owens, D-Millcreek, who co-founded Utah Outdoor Partners.

“The Utah Tourism Council used to put a billboard up in between Denver and Vail, and they said to drivers, if you were in Utah, you’d be skiing already,” Owens said. “We’re in danger of having other states put up a sign like that in our state. If you go up a Little Cottonwood Canyon on a powder day, you’re in trouble. You could be in traffic for a long time.”

To address this gridlock, the Utah Department of Transportation is currently weighing whether to install a massive gondola or provide “enhanced” bus service by widening the road up the canyon.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Little Cottonwood Canyon, on Friday, June 25, 2021.

Wilson, R-Kaysville, said the state needs to step up to invest in outdoor opportunities, which he called “assets.” The Utah native described his feelings toward Utah’s outdoors as “wistful,” given the growing pressure his favorite places are experiencing.

“It’s incumbent upon us, the state leaders, to protect and preserve those assets,” said Wilson, who confessed to mountain biking in Cedar City during family trips to the Utah Shakespeare Festival. (He also confessed to attending the plays and even enjoying them.)

No, Wilson is not going to join the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, the outspoken conservation group that is often at odds with the state’s political leaders over protective designations on public lands. When he talks about protection and preservation, Wilson is promoting expansion of the “infrastructure” needed for people to sustainably enjoy these landscapes.

“We’ve got to have a plan,” Wilson said, “a strategy as a state to protect, preserve and build more recreation opportunities and assets — not for tourists though we love having them here — but my perspective and paradigm has been this is 100% about building and protecting these assets for Utahns that live here, so we have a place to play and recreate.”