Derek Miller: Utah builds success on integrated education system

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah in Salt Lake City begins their celebration of its largest graduating class with 8,568 graduates for their 2018 commencement ceremonies on Thursday, May 3, 2018, on their way to the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services recently announced that Utah’s unemployment rate is at a stunningly low 2.5%, consistently ranking below the national average which currently sits at 3.5%. Utah’s unprecedented economic success is a result of its strong workforce. And its strong workforce is a result of the effectiveness of Utah’s higher education system.

Outstanding colleges, universities and technical schools throughout the state are responsible for educating the skilled labor force needed to grow and strengthen Utah’s economy. Employers need talented workers. One cannot exist without the other, and while our low unemployment rate is something to celebrate, it also offers a few challenges.

Since the Great Recession, Utah’s unemployment has steadily trended downward as somewhere between 27,000 and 50,000 jobs have been added each year. Supporting this growth requires a continued stream of increasingly diverse and skilled workers, and efforts must be made to assure that our future workforce can meet the demands of an evolving economy.

Current indicators appear promising. According to a recent report from the Utah System of Higher Education, 38% of graduates are earning credentials in the most high-demand fields. In fact, four out of the five most common academic programs align directly with many of Utah’s workforce needs:

  • Health professions

  • Business management

  • Computer and information systems

  • Education

The bottom line, however, is that traditional higher education cannot meet all workforce needs now or in the future. Industries experiencing the greatest shortage of available workforce include those that require skilled labor and technical degrees, such as manufacturing, construction and mining. Consequently, our efforts must be to encourage strategic alignment between secondary and higher education, emphasizing workforce needs that can propel Utah’s economy forward.

Utah industry leaders are committed to working closely with the state’s public colleges and universities to coordinate on academic programs that prepare students for bright futures. To that end, the Salt Lake Chamber designated H.B. 68, Apprenticeship and Work-based Learning Amendments, sponsored by Representative Francis Gibson, as a priority for this Legislative Session.

H.B. 68, allows Utah companies to partner with our higher education institutions to target identifiable needs within the workforce and structure apprenticeship programs to fill specific gaps in our workforce. Given Utah’s low unemployment rate, training our workforce in a strategic way is important to help maintain the strength of our economy.

In addition, the Chamber prioritized H.B. 99, Enhanced Kindergarten Amendments. Studies show that by expanding enhanced kindergarten opportunities we can improve student outcomes in the short- and long-term, which means this investment is an investment in Utah’s workforce.

We are grateful for the legislative support of these bills, which ultimately led to H.B. 68 and H.B. 99 passing both chambers. We are looking forward to Governor Herbert’s signature for these bills in the coming days.

The Salt Lake Chamber is proud of the role it plays to facilitate the collaboration between government, education and industry partnerships by strengthening relationships between leaders in the public and private sectors, sustaining open and regular channels of communication, and coordinating working groups on important issues and among myriad industries and community interests.

In light of Utah’s continued economic growth, we must celebrate the successes of our higher education system, but we must also focus on meeting workforce needs. Accordingly, we have a renewed commitment to strengthening the ties between education and industry leaders to help students achieve greater outcomes.

Our economy—and our state’s future—depends on it.

Derek Miller

Derek Miller is president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber.

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