Ann Millner and Val Peterson: Utah must do more to educate for high-tech jobs

Times are changing. Technology continues to expand, and workforce needs continue to evolve. While many exciting careers of tomorrow may not even exist today, Utah’s educators, students and workforce must do all they can to guarantee future success.

Many states are making concerted efforts to attract and cultivate talented workforces in technology — including emerging technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. Now is the time for Utah to do the same, being intentional and strategic in qualifying our citizens for the best jobs today and in the future.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gov. Mike Leavitt set a goal to make Utah a tech capital. He visited Silicon Valley to recruit tech businesses to Utah. Each time his efforts were rebuffed because Utah citizens lacked the required talent in adequate numbers. We needed more engineers.

Leavitt and the Legislature worked to pass the Utah Engineering Initiative and increase the number of engineers trained in Utah. Since its implementation, Utah has graduated over 40,000 engineers — a vital first step in Utah’s journey to become a leading tech hub. Now it’s time for phase two.

Last year we met with many of Utah’s tech industry leaders. They all voiced a similar concern: They cannot find enough qualified applicants to staff research and development positions here in Utah. Despite their commitment to Utah, industry leaders are being forced to seek talent out of state, and in some cases, must create and staff additional offices out of state to meet their research and development needs. These lost positions are desirable high-skill, high-wage jobs. We want to keep outstanding jobs like these here in Utah.

Justin Lindsey, chief technology officer from Banjo, shared, “The Salt Lake City area is listed as a future tech city with a lot of possibilities. The entrepreneurial drive here is great, but to actually power a technical ecosystem, you need deeply talented technical people as the fuel. Without this fuel, the engine will sputter out and the state will be left with the web equivalent of call centers that do not produce breakthrough innovations. When you look at cities like Austin, Texas, the technical talent approximates a Boston, Seattle or Bay Area. The same can not yet be said for Salt Lake City or Utah as a whole. We must act now to build and drive to the desired outcome.”

With guidance from the tech community, we created S.B. 96 Emerging Technology Talent Initiative. It will reward public universities for partnering with industry leaders. It offers incentives for public universities to create multi-disciplinary, emerging technology programs that enable scientific discovery and engineering innovation. It will help Utah’s workforce qualify for Utah’s best jobs. While this bill does not create a specific program for universities to follow, it provides incentives and guidelines for universities to create their own programs addressing critical state needs.

With the right programs in place, Utah’s workforce will rise to meet market opportunities. We can lead the nation in workforce preparation and skill. We must begin today to seize the best careers of tomorrow.

Ann Millner

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden

Val Peterson

Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem