Dave R. Woolstenhulme and Derek Miller: Strengthen education and industry in Utah to prevent a crisis

Partnerships in government and industry work to create sustained economic growth in Utah.

Two years ago, higher education and industry were at a critical juncture — a point that could link them closer together or send them down divergent paths. It quickly became clear that leaders within higher education and the business community needed to revitalize their connections to collectively address the issues facing the state and its people.

Without intervention, this looming divide would have been to the detriment of all Utahns and the economy. Especially considering that, despite the pandemic, the state’s population has continued an upward trajectory, and with it, an increased need for a pipeline of talented graduates with certificates and degrees to ensure sustained economic growth.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that Utah’s population grew at a faster rate than any other state in the nation over the last decade. We don’t foresee this growth slowing down, and that’s why the Utah System of Higher Education and Salt Lake Chamber have taken measures in recent years to strengthen partnerships between Utah’s colleges and businesses, working together in new ways.

The unification of the state’s technical and degree-granting colleges into one system in 2020 left Utah’s higher education system poised to redouble its efforts to meet workforce needs, prevent workforce shortages and assure students earn valuable, worthwhile certificates and degrees.

Both technical college graduates and those from Utah’s degree-granting institutions are needed to meet the growing needs of Utah’s economy. Currently, about 66% of all awards from Utah’s public colleges are aligned with high-wage, high-demand occupations — a figure state education leaders hope to increase to at least 74% by 2027, in large part through workforce partnerships in Utah.

Not only do certificates and degrees need to be aligned with high-wage, high-demand occupations, but students also need to complete their education in a timely manner to get into the workforce sooner. Currently, about 47% of all USHE awards from Utah’s public colleges are made with 1.5 years for a one-year certificate and six years for a bachelor’s degree. State education leaders are working to increase that number to over 50% by 2027 by increasing the timely completion rates of students at each public college in Utah.

One initiative kicking industry partnerships into high gear and that serves as a prime example of higher education’s responsiveness to industry needs is the Deep Technology Initiative.

The University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute reported in 2019 that the tech industry was the fastest-growing and highest-paying industry in Utah. The Deep Technology Initiative funds higher education programs specifically in support of growing the workforce to conduct research and development in Utah’s expanding deep technology industries, including artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, biotechnology, quantum computing and robotics to name a few.

Beyond this initiative, education leaders serve on workforce development boards and work in tandem with chambers of commerce, the Department of Workforce Services, and other local leaders to identify and address skill gaps in any industry for employers and the state at the local and system wide level.

Utah’s system of higher education partners with DWS on its Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. This is a network of federal, state, regional and local agencies and organizations that provide a range of employment, education, training and related services to help all job-seekers secure good employment while providing businesses with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy.

Another recent workforce-driven program in Utah was the Learn & Work in Utah initiative, made possible in partnership with the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity and Talent Ready Utah. This program has helped many students who were unemployed or underemployed because of the pandemic to reskill and upskill in short-term training programs at Utah colleges by providing tuition assistance.

Utah colleges will be able to further facilitate and develop these relationships with businesses and entrepreneurs through the system’s partnership with the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, where they will have the opportunity to take part in even more technological innovation and business development. We are committed to seeing these partnerships through to create sustained economic growth in Utah and deliver on our promises, making way for innovative new solutions between higher education and industry so that the state and its people can reach their full earning potential.

Dave R. Woolstenhulme | commissioner of higher education, Utah System of Higher Education

Dave R. Woolstenhulme, Ed.D., is commissioner of higher education for the Utah System of Higher Education, which oversees Utah’s 16 public colleges and universities.

Derek Miller

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