SALT LAKE CITY — Many students in Utah lack the skills and training they need to transfer seamlessly into the workforce, according to a recent poll by Dan Jones & Associates.

It makes hiring difficult for businesses like Instructure, a Utah-based technology company specializing in online learning. Out of the last 50 technology positions Instructure has hired, half of them were filled by people from out of state, according to Vice President Jeff Weber.

Community leaders are raising concerns that the gap between education output and needs of the workforce is widening, and that the long-term sustainability of Utah's economy hangs in the balance.

"We really do have a disconnect in our community in a lot of ways, particularly communication (between) education and business people in trying to make education more market-driven," said Stan Parrish, president of the Sandy Area Chamber of Commerce.

Representatives from Utah's business community met with educators in an education workforce alliance summit Thursday to find ways to bridge the gap, giving students opportunities to gain the skills most needed in today's economy.

Skills in demand

Many of the 34 companies and 84 executives and managers surveyed in the Dan Jones & Associates poll were present for Thursday's discussion hosted by the Sandy Area Chamber of Commerce and Zions Bank.

While technical skills remain in high demand, soft skills are what most employers say are missing among Utah's new workers. Nearly 90 percent of employers said recent graduates lack necessary oral and written communication skills, and 81 percent of employers said prospective employees lack critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, according to the poll.

Pat Jones, a Utah businesswoman, senator and co-founder of Dan Jones & Associates, said most employers she surveyed are "crying" for workers with better abilities in the work environment.

"Clearly, our people that are coming into the workforce are not understanding how to write effectively," Jones said. "Critical thinking skills are grossly deficient."

Jones added that there is an "expectation gap" where new graduates often misunderstand their role in the workplace and that they tend to be unprepared for the tasks they are given because the classroom does not simulate the workplace environment.

When it comes to technical skills, Jones summed up in one sentence what most companies are asking for: "We need engineers with a personality."

"We heard that over and over," she said. "Companies are spending a lot of money to train people as they come into their companies in sensitivities and cultures and how to do business. Many of these things, they are telling us, are items that ought to be taught in our higher education and public education systems."

For companies like Instructure, this means slower production time, greater costs from escalating salaries and difficulty retaining employees after they are trained, according to Weber.

"We can't find the people we need here. It's unfortunate even though we're passionate about hiring people in the state," he said during the summit. "All of us have a mutual vested interest to find ways to generate more talent, more candidates with the skills and abilities we need."

Bridging the gap

As part of the poll, Parrish also presented an "action plan" to bring businesses and schools together to discuss ways of aligning students' abilities with the needs of the workforce.

The plan recommends holding students accountable for all forms of communication, including email, public speaking and debate. Jones said more support is needed for guidance and career counselors, who are often overwhelmed with the number of students they are charged with helping.

Additional coursework is required in areas including verbal and written communication, critical thinking, how to receive job offers and be promoted, leadership and various STEM fields, according to the study.

The study also suggests more opportunities for businesses professionals to teach in schools, as well as internship opportunities for students.

Syd Dickson, deputy superintendent of the Utah State Office of Education, said additional funding for professional development is needed to help teachers reshape their coursework and communication with students.

Dickson also said producing students with the skills necessary requires support for higher standards in education, such as the Common Core standards that raised the bar in math and English.

"One of the challenges and goals we should have as a group is to be very vocal in supporting these new higher standards," Dickson said. "They're not without bumps in the road in implementation, but the standards themselves are the right things to get at these intended outcomes."

Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said helping students begin their preparations for the workforce early starts in the home.

"We should help parents understand that helping students be prepared early in their education isn't channeling them," Sullivan said, "but it's giving them an opportunity."

Parrish invited business representatives and educators to a follow-up meeting in March to discuss workforce skills in greater specificity that they hope to implement into public education and higher education coursework. Parrish said he hopes to facilitate similar meetings in other chambers across the state with local businesses and educators.

"This is just to get the dialogue going," he said. "We'd like to stimulate them and get them up to the table. There's a real disconnect. They don't talk."

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