Utah Technology Council president asks for 'quantum leap' in technology education
SALT LAKE CITY — The president of the Utah Technology Council told lawmakers Tuesday that for the past eight years, council members have given the same answer when asked about the issues facing Utah's high-tech employers.
"Talent shortage for the last several years has been our No. 1 issue as an industry," council President and CEO Richard Nelson said. "We really need quantum leaps in what we’re doing."
He said that some positive steps have been made, such as the creation of the STEM Action Center to coordinate science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiatives and the recent decision by the State School Board to allow high school computer science classes to count toward required science coursework.
But despite those efforts, he said, Utah's technology employers find themselves competing among each other and with other states for a limited pool of skilled workers.
"We are exporting these great jobs because we haven’t found a way to get in alignment this (kindergarten) through (higher education) system, and we’re not using the modern, the digital way, to educate our kids," Nelson said.
Nelson's comments came during a meeting of the Education Task Force, a special committee of the Utah Legislature comprised of both House and Senate leaders.
The subject of school technology is a common point of discussion for the task force, and members have previously explored the feasibility of moving the state toward a so-called "one-to-one" device ratio, in which each public school student has access to digital learning devices.
A bill to modernize school technology was sponsored during the most recent legislative session as a priority for House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, but stalled amid concerns over limited funding.
Nelson said it is important that schools are funded around digital tools, new technologies and effective learning models. He believes introducing students to STEM opportunities is necessary to prepare a workforce aligned with future market needs.
"I applaud the speaker for putting forth a vision," he said. "I would hope that it comes back."
During the task force hearing, Sen. Patricia Jones, D-Holladay, asked Nelson what percentage of Utah's technology job applicants are women, to which Nelson replied "not nearly enough."
Jones said that if there is a need to increase the number of workers in STEM fields, there would also be a need to increase outreach and recruitment efforts to female workers and students.
"If we wanted to open up the job applicant pool, it would seem like a natural that we try to get young women interested in computer sciences and it doesn’t seem to be happening," she said.
Nelson added that not all jobs in the technology industry require a college degree, and more effort needs to be made to educate students on the career potential of technical certifications.
He referenced the state's "66 by 2020" goal — which calls for two-thirds of Utah adults to hold a degree or certificate by the year 2020 — and said the state will not be able to reach that benchmark by just increasing the output of college and university degrees.
"The only way we’re going to get there is through certifications," he said.
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