Utah has always ranked high in the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college. But that may not always be the best answer for many of the state's young people, even though there is a kind of cultural bias that favors college over other kinds of training.
While Utah's colleges and universities are bulging at the seams and will continue to do so for years to come, many good jobs are available for people with entry-level technical skills or other basic training.In fact, some college graduates whose liberal education is in non-technical fields can have a harder time finding employment than someone who has spent six months or a year in a trade school.
Utah's former vocational colleges in Salt Lake and Utah County have become community colleges. While they still retain their vocational role, they are growing rapidly and much of the growth seems to be academic in nature, a kind of stepping-stone to a four-year school.
There are other vocational education options that are less familiar. More students are enrolling in private trade and technical schools and are finding jobs when they finish. There are more than 35 such private training institutions in Utah and they graduate some 5,000 people a year in programs that range from three months to two years.
Such private programs have in the past had an image of being a "last resort" in education, but they can fill an important niche. There is a growing awareness of their role in the Utah job market.
A group known as Utah Skills 2000, a coalition of legislators, employers, trade and technical schools and community leaders, is seeking to make Utahns more aware of vocational education, both public and private, and is battling to keep support for students from being cut because of government budget problems.
They make a convincing case. Many of those who enroll in trade schools are people who cannot afford to attend four years of college and need student loans or grants even for shorter terms of vocational training.
If that support dwindles on a federal level, as it threatens to do, Utah should take up the slack and even improve on it. This is not an expense, it is an investment.
A youngster who can get vocational training and subsequently a good job becomes a well-paid, tax-paying citizen instead of an unskilled job seeker who is periodically collecting unemployment and welfare checks from the state.
If Utah wants economic good times and to attract new industry, it must not hesitate to invest in a skilled work force by providing support for vocational education and grants and loans to vocational students.