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SALT LAKE CITY — State lawmakers repeated their call for a greater emphasis on technical education Wednesday as members of the Education Interim Committee heard testimony from industry representatives on the shortage of skilled workers.
Rep. Rich Cunningham, R-South Jordan, said many students today are being priced out of a four-year education but are still under the impression that a college or university education is their only option beyond high school.
"We have a growing demand, an immediate need, for machinists, electricians, bricklayers, automobile mechanics, diesel mechanics, iron workers, concrete workers, carpenters and welders," Cunningham said.
Todd Bingham, president of the Utah Manufacturers Association, said technical and manufacturing jobs suffer from an image issue, where those carriers are viewed as inferior to others that require a bachelor's degree or higher.
But the demand for those jobs is growing, Bingham said, and the potential earnings are high, even for entry-level workers.
"People see manufacturing as the three Ds: dark, dangerous and dirty," he said. "Manufacturing is anything but that. This is not your grandfather’s industry."
Bingham said the shortage of skilled workers is not a reflection of students being underprepared by Utah's applied technology schools but instead is due to too few students enrolling.
"Wer’e not putting enough kids into the program to spit enough out at the end," he said.
Robert Despain, vice president of business development for Petersen Inc., a steel fabrication company based in Ogden, echoed Cunningham's comments, saying his business has struggled to find the workers it needs.
"We need welders. We need machinists," Despain said. "And we’ve beat this drum to death, but I’m living it. We need them. We need them desperately."
He complimented the Utah College of Applied Technology for the "phenomenal job" it does training students, but added that students at the high school level need to be made aware of the opportunities of technical education.
"We’re not a dingy, dirty, creepy little business," Despain said. "We’re the real deal."
But Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said he worries that lawmakers sometimes forget about the role the market plays in influencing the career decisions made by individuals. He said the market will ultimately decide where workers are needed.
"We do have a role in the Legislature to support the institutions in identifying where the market is headed and providing the funding," Nielson said. "I’m very leery of our ability to drive the market."
Cunningham said the state has already taken steps to encourage STEM education, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He said his interest is in working collaboratively with lawmakers, education officials and industry representatives to see what more can be done to attract more businesses to the state and increase the economy's output.
"I just don’t think we’re getting the water to the end of the row," Cunningham said, "and I think we need to look at this with some kind of group that would be willing to look at it."
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