Building Utah's workforce key to becoming Silicon Valley East

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29 2013 7:10 p.m. MST

The governor and state lawmakers convening this week have key roles in preparing the state to take advantage of an anticipated boom, particularly in information technology and life sciences.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Instead of a place to keep felons behind bars, the ground on which the Utah State Prison now sits could someday be the hub of a sprawling business community where bright minds unlock the door to new technology.

Nearby, a new engineering or math graduate might be pulling down a high salary in an office tower in another high-tech development rising from what is now barren ground just west of I-15 in Draper.

Just around Point of the Mountain on the windswept rolling hills below Traverse Ridge in Lehi, a young family could be settling into a "workplace neighborhood" where people live, work, play and go to school.

The burgeoning IT corridor in southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County is poised to be the focal point of Utah's economic future. It's where the state's two largest metropolitan areas converge, both of which have major universities and expanding transportation systems. Companies including Adobe and eBay already call it home.

"It has become such a nexus. It's such an amazing confluence of the economy of the state," said Jeff Edwards, executive director of the Utah Economic Development Corporation. "I see that being a really amazing engine; it already is, and I think it's just going to continue grow."

The governor and state lawmakers convening this week have key roles in preparing the state to take advantage of an anticipated boom, particularly in information technology and life sciences.

And a key component of that is education.

Building the workforce

Companies like Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble came to Utah primarily because of its business-friendly environment and stellar workforce, which Eccles said is the youngest in the country.

Those two firms account for nearly 2,600 jobs and will pay $437 million in corporate income tax over the next 20 years, all of which goes directly to public education, according to the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

But even though Utah has the second fastest growing economy in the nation, there are signs that the quality of the workforce might not be able to keep up in the technology arena.

Some top economic development officials fear a well-known company might decide against coming to Utah because the state wouldn't be able to supply enough tech-related graduates to fill its needs.

"That would probably be one of those seminal moments in developing policy on education that would probably be a lever that changes minds on increasing funding for education in a way that would help economic development," said Steve Kroes, president of the Utah Foundation, a public policy research group.

Such a scenario, he said, would get lawmakers' attention. "They would see that someone in the business community is serious about this issue and movement would need to happen."

Kroes said any increases in education funding would have to be pinpointed investments, such as in science, technology, engineering and math, referred to by state and business leaders as STEM.

"I don't think there's much of a stomach at the legislative level for just broad education increases. But if they can target some specific things that do increase productivity, I think there is sympathy for that and I think it's probably great strategy by the business community to be pursuing those," he said.

Edwards is among economic development officials who are concerned about the long-term viability of Utah's workforce.

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