Brandon Dew and Will Kocher: This Labor Day, let’s commit to build the workforce Utah needs

Utah must do more to match available labor with business needs.

Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune The giant stack can be seen from inside the Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, Utah, April 12, 2013.

Utah is in the middle of a workforce crisis. We can use new resources coming into our state from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and Inflation Reduction Act to solve it.

True, we are blessed with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country — hovering around 2.1% — but that masks the labor challenges that threaten our state’s prosperity.

On one side, we have too many Utahns who are trapped in low-wage work. They can find jobs in our hot economy, but not ones that are paying the bills in our hot housing market. We see this in the surging demand for food pantries, the rise in child hunger, and the explosion of homelessness on our streets.

On the other side, we don’t have the skilled workforce we need to upgrade our infrastructure for the Utah of the future — engineering projects that will save the Great Salt Lake, installation of broadband internet cables across rural Utah, retrofitting schools and public buildings for maximum energy efficiency, creation of an electric vehicle charging network, road repair in the Navajo nation, construction of new affordable housing, capping of poisonous gas and oil wells, expansion of passenger rail and more.

All of these exciting upgrades are possible with the $3.4 billion in federal funds coming to Utah thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) championed by Sen. Mitt Romney, the Inflation Reduction Act and contributions from our overflowing state coffers. But without the skilled workers to take on these ambitious projects, we cannot realize this potential.

We are seeing this right now with the Intermountain Power Plant in Delta, where over half of the labor is from out of state, providing high-paying jobs to Coloradans and providing little economic benefit to rural Utah.

A coalition of labor, trades, environmental clean energy and community groups from across the state is coming together under the banner of United Today, Stronger Tomorrow to make sure that the billions of federal dollars coming to Utah are used to ensure a strong, prosperous, equitable and sustainable future for our communities in-state.

We are hearing from hundreds of Utahns about which infrastructure projects should be prioritized (readers can weigh in with your opinion using this survey). We are also hearing about what sort of workforce policies could attract, prepare and retain the local workers we need to build our state. Some of those policies include:

1. Ensuring that all projects funded through federal infrastructure dollars pay a competitive prevailing wage.

2. Building apprenticeship programs into federal infrastructure projects funded by IIJA and IRA.

3. Using remaining County American Rescue Plan funds to create apprenticeship programs (Salt Lake County alone has nearly $100 million in unallocated ARPA resources that could be put towards this).

4. Connecting jobs with immigrant, rural and Indigenous communities. With the prosperity of our state, the new resources from the federal government, and the ethic of hard work that has always been part of Utah’s culture, we can solve our workforce challenges and make a down payment on Utah’s future economic development.

This Labor Day, let’s make the commitment to do it.

Brandon Dew

Brandon Dew is the district representative for Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 and serves on the organizing committee of United Today Stronger Tomorrow – Utah.

Will Kocher

Will Kocher is the secretary-treasurer for The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local Union No. 1004 and serves as the Vice President of the Central Utah Federation of Labor.