SALT LAKE CITY — Diversity and air quality were at the top of the to-do lists for a group of Utah tech-sector leaders who spoke at an Envision Utah event on Tuesday aimed at exploring what can be done to maintain the trajectory of one of the state's biggest economic drivers.
In opening comments to the crowd of state and local government leaders, education experts and members of the business community gathered at the Grand America, Envision CEO Robert Grow underscored the powerful role technology and advanced-industries businesses are playing in the state, with growth that's far outpacing national averages.
"Along the Wasatch Front, half of the new jobs (created since the end of the Great Recession) are in the innovation economy," Grow said. "These jobs pay better and produce goods and services that are sold outside our state and outside our country.
"They’re like money funnels that bring money into the Utah economy which then ripples through the rest of all of our companies and our jobs," he said.
Yet, while the state's tech growth has been on an enviable expansion streak, long-range planners like Grow and his Envision Utah team are working to anticipate where the weak spots may be in hopes of averting a downturn.
Howard Hochhauser, Ancestry.com's chief financial officer/chief operating officer, said his company has run into trouble attracting top-quality candidates to Utah and has an idea of at least a few of the barriers faced.
"Things like the debate around clean air, gender diversity or even hate crime legislation," Hochhauser said. "Once you get people here they love it, but getting them here has been really hard."
Instructure CEO Josh Coates concurred with Hochhauser, but said since he came to the state in 2004, the environment for attracting new talent to Utah has greatly improved.
"Looking back to then, it's become a lot easier recruiting into the state," Coates said. "If you could clean up the air, that would be amazing. But, reputationally, I think Utah is getting less quirky."
While individual companies may be seeing macro-level challenges, Utah's technology economy has added some 75,000 since 2010. And the multiplier effect that Grow noted has impacts at several tiers.
A 2015 Brookings Institute report that took a deep look at tech and advanced industry economics found that, since 1975, average earnings for tech jobs have increased almost five times as fast as those in the overall economy. Those tech salaries beat non-tech salaries at every level of education, from high school dropout to Ph.D. And, the report notes, every tech-sector job creates on average more than two additional jobs.
Some of the challenges noted by tech leaders go beyond Utah's unique cultural characteristics or the topography that exacerbates seasonal air quality issues.
Silicon Slopes executive board member Carine Clark highlighted Utah's notoriety for poor performances across numerous gender equity metrics, including wages and career advancement.
"When I travel around the world, that's our reputation," Clark said. "That it's not a great place for women."
Hochhauser and Coates, as well as Lucid Software CEO Karl Sun, all highlighted their companies' efforts to achieve salary equity and expressed hopes that more Utah businesses would join the effort. Hochhauser noted that there may be something for Utah to learn from past government leaders in his native New York City who long ago made a commitment to playing an active role in cultivating a place that supports diversity.
"Their focus was on let’s attract great people who make great cities," Hochhauser said. "Let’s do what we need to do to attract great people and make them feel welcome here."
Continued growth, Sun said, was inevitable thanks to Utah's successes but also told the audience that the time had come to decide what kind of place Utah is going to create for both the near term and into the future.
"We’ve got a good thing going on here, and people know that and they’re going to come," Sun said. "We have to figure out how we're going to do that strategically and intelligently."