Push is on to prepare students for college and careers

Published: Monday, Jan. 28 2013 6:40 p.m. MST

As the country continues to climb out of the economic recession, job growth in Utah is expected to double the national rate, according to a recent report by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. According to the report, construction and housing will play a leading role in the state's economic recovery and growth.

The report also anticipates strong growth in the professional and business services sector — which includes accounting, engineering and design — as well as in trade, transportation and utilities.

In 2013, Utah employers added 35,800 jobs for a job growth rate of 2.9 percent, the state's highest rate since 2007, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"That's absolutely what you want to see because these are generally high-education, high-salaried jobs," said Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services. "It creates a strong trickle-down effect for the rest of the economy here."

Stephenson said that at Utah's applied technology schools and the CTE programs at Salt Lake Community College, there are significant wait lists for programs that often take only nine months to complete but pay a salary higher than many bachelor's degrees. He said many students are able to quickly obtain a license or certification, which then allows them to work at a $30-per-hour job while they continue their education at a college or university.

"They can earn a lot more money, whether that becomes their career or whether that helps them pay their way through college," he said.

Stephenson said that technical education, much like STEM programs, suffers from students not being made aware of the options and salary potential available to them. Many high school students, he said, have simply never heard that a STEM graduate's lifetime earnings are double that of a non-STEM graduate, which lulls them into a the false belief that all college degrees are created equal.

Realizing this has put him on a "crusade to shout from the rooftops," Stephenson said, and has convinced him of the need for better STEM preparation at the high school level to inform students' decisions.

"They celebrate commencement with their family only to have tears later on when they realize they've earned a degree to nowhere," he said. "I've used that term before and I'll use it again. If you earn a degree that you can't earn a job in to pay back your loans, I call that a degree to nowhere."

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, agrees. He is not sponsoring legislation that specifically addresses STEM funding but said he's spoken with several business owners and CEOs who have outsourced high-paying jobs because Utah fails to produce an adequately trained workforce.

"I fully support the concept that we need to create excitement and enthusiasm in the state far earlier than we do right now, that a STEM career can be an exciting and rewarding career," he said.

Seeking proficiency

In addition to degree and certificate goals, the Prosperity 2020 initiative has set a 90 percent benchmark for students testing proficient in math and English and for the state's overall graduation rate. In 2012, the graduation rate increased to 78 percent, continuing a trend that has seen the rate climb 9 percent since 2008.

To achieve those goals, Prosperity 2020 has requested targeted funding from state lawmakers, but has also suggested tax code changes, such as severance, fuel and food taxes. The idea of new revenue is typically anathema to members of the business community and the state's Republican majority, but Natalie Gochnour, chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber, said the state's educational challenges are cause for a variety of conversations. 

"We want to be responsible," she said. "If we're talking about investing, we have to talk about new revenue."

Dabakis spoke positively about Prosperity 2020 but said it is the business community's response to a workforce crises and should not be confused for adequate government leadership.

"It's fine, it's good, it's noble, but it's not a vision," he said.


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