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Economic concerns arise as fewer Utahns have college degrees

Published: Thursday, Jan. 12 2012 9:10 p.m. MST

Alan Westenskow, vice president of Zions Bank Public Finance, speaks during a panel discussion at the Utah Economic Review at the Little America Hotel on Thursday morning.

Joey Ferguson, Deseret News

Utah must grow post-secondary education levels to keep the state competitive, Gov. Gary Herbert and other business leaders said at the Utah Economic Review.

Utah's educational advantage is shrinking, according to Census Bureau data. In 2009, Utahns with a bachelor's degree totaled 28.5 percent, or 0.6 percentage points more than the national average. By comparison, Utah bachelor's degree holders in 2000 totaled 26.1 percent, or 2 percentage points more than the national average.

"I believe that the way that we have sold ourselves in the past is with a young, educated and highly productive labor force has been true and a big part of explaining our economic success," Kelly Matthews, former executive vice president and economist for Wells Fargo Bank in Utah, said during a panel discussion. "We must do everything we can to avoid the attainment slipping that would erode the concept that we are a highly productive labor force."

Economists and officials from BYU, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Zions Bank and others expressed their concerns to Herbert over losing skilled workforce or not keeping pace with national averages.

In 2009, Utah ranked 32nd nationwide in educational attainment with 28.5 percent of adults ages 25 and older holding bachelor's degrees or higher, according to U.S. Census data. That is a drop of 15 positions from 2008.

"We are slipping in our younger population," Utah Foundation president Steve Kroes saod. "If you look at the states that are like Utah, like Minnesota, we are doing quite poorly. We've got some work to do."

After listening to suggestions from the panel about education and voter participation, Herbert addressed the crowd of business professionals at Salt Lake's Little America Hotel.

"We do have to have a significantly skilled labor force," he said. "That means we need to make sure that the education we are giving is not only capable, robust and skilled, but it aligns with what you people want to have when you go out and hire people."

The state wants to have two-thirds of the 21-year-old to 65-year-old population receive post-high school certification or a degree by 2020, Herbert said, referring to the Governor's Education Excellence Commission and Prosperity 2020. Another aim is to have 90 percent of elementary students reach math and reading proficiency.

"We are making significant efforts to improve education," Herbert said. "We've got $134 million in the budget for public and higher education. We're proposing giving increases to our teachers for the first time in three years."

Despite the educational concerns, panelists said they were hopeful for 2012.

"The theme for 2012 will be economic recovery," said Juliette Tennert, deputy director and chief economist for the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. "Utah's data continues to improve. Utah has recovered more rapidly than the U.S. after every economic downturn in the past six years. I see no reason why it would be any different this time around."

The Chamber set a goal to help the Utah economy add 150,000 jobs in the next five years, said Natalie Gochnour, chief economist with the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. Last year, 23,000 jobs were added, putting the Chamber ahead of its goal.

The Governor's office set a goal to help add 100,000 jobs in 1,000 days, a number Herbert said they picked because that's how many people were unemployed.

"I am very optimistic about Utah's future," Herbert said. "I won't rest until everybody who wants a job has an opportunity to have a job."

The event was put on by the Salt Lake Chamber and Wasatch Front Economic Forum.

Email: jferguson@desnews.com

TWITTER: @joeyferguson

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