Building Utah's workforce key to becoming Silicon Valley East

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

"We've got to get our arms around education because if we don't, were going to lose that workforce advantage that we have and really enjoyed for the last 25 years. Another generation of kids is coming and we're going to need every one of them if the economy keeps growing," Edwards said.

Education and the state's economy are linked like the chain and sprockets on a bicycle.

"That is the lifeblood of this state," said Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, noting education is not typically an objective in a state's economic development plan.

On average, public schools see about 14,000 new students a year, costing an additional $75 million annually.

Bringing a business like Goldman Sachs to Utah each year helps cover those growing education costs, Eccles said.

Herbert budget

Gov. Gary Herbert built his proposed state budget around bolstering public, higher and technical education with a nearly $300 million infusion of additional money. Whether he gets that depends on decisions made in Congress and how state lawmakers decide to use the tax revenue Utah ultimately has to spend.

Herbert said reaching his goal of 66 percent of all Utahns earning a college degree or certificate by 2020 will be a key issue for the state to come together on this legislative session.

"This will bring us together in a common goal of all of us pulling the same direction, and it's a game changer. That's why you see the business community, which is the end user of education, really embracing this in ways that are surprising to me," the governor said. "It's a necessity. If we don't do it, our economy will, in fact, underperform."

The Salt Lake Chamber lists lawmakers approving a joint resolution endorsing the achievement of the 66 percent goal, known as Prosperity 2020, through increased innovation and investment as a top priority for the 2013 Legislature.

Natalie Gochnour, Chamber executive vice president and chief economist, said that's an issue because business leaders have seen both warning signs and great potential for  economic growth.

"It gets even more serious when California is struggling. Right now we're at a time when Utah's business environment is extremely attractive and California's is not very attractive" she said.

Reading and math scores among Utah fourth- and eighth-graders rank last or near the bottom when compared to states with similar demographics and socioeconomics, Gochnour said. Also, the state has seen a dip in high school graduation rates, and fewer students are completing college.

In addition, Utah's population is diversifying ethnically and racially at a rapid rate, she said.

"Culturally and because of the language spoken at home, there's greater impediments to learning, so it's more expensive and complicated to educate a diverse population," Gochnour said.

The STEM fields along with the health professions are subjects state leaders say will be most in demand as Utah's economy expands.

"There's no question that there are engineering jobs that have been left unfilled in the state right now," Gochnour said. "We know that's an area where we need to ramp up."

Solving the problem

Chamber officials identified specific things lawmakers could do to prepare Utahns for the future job market:

• Provide public schools $43.6 million for computer-adaptive testing, ACT testing for every high school student, and science, technology, engineering and math education.

• Give higher education $20 million for high-growth, high-wage degrees in science, technology, engineering and math and health professions.

• Give the Utah College of Applied Technology $9.75 million to increase capacity at its campuses to produce 153,000 more certificates by 2020.

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