Utah will continue to lose the work force it educates unless economic growth can be stimulated to keep pace, a League of Women Voters of Utah study indicates.
The League undertook the study after its April 1987 convention. The organization has a long-standing interest in education and chose to study the link between education and economic development as a means of informing members and the public.Between now and the year 2000, Utah's labor force will increase by 33.2 percent, swelled by a record number of students now in the public school system. The statistic represents "a unique economic opportunity for the state," the study says.
The report outlines two primary and interrelated challenges for Utah over the next few years: to enhance education at all levels as a lure for new economic growth and to attract the type of industry that will provide opportunity at home for an educated work force.
New jobs are most likely coming in high technology and service-related industries, the study says, while goods-producing jobs will decline. The shift in the job market will require more education - an average 13.5 years for most workers. Those jobs requiring high school education or less will become harder to find.
Attracting small, mobile companies - the category most likely to seek out Utah for location - will require a qualified labor force, training and retraining capacity, research and development resources and a strong public- and higher-education systems, the study concluded.
The availability of a good work force, coupled with an attractive lifestyle, are major factors a company considers in contemplating a work site, a leading economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says. Only wage levels and unionization are more important to such a company, the economist says.
Historically low wages in Utah may attract new businesses, but they contribute to the state's own revenue problems, the study reported. Women's wages are a particular concern. With a higher percentage of women employed (59 percent compared with 57 percent nationally) this segment of the work force continues to lose ground on wages.
Utah's education problems of recent years, coupled with an uncertain future, compromise the state's ability to attract new industry, the report said. High-tech industry relies heavily on its ability to train and retrain workers as technology improves. Utah must position itself to meet those needs if it wants such businesses in the state.
The state's Custom Fit program, which provides specific training through local area vocational centers and institutions of higher education, has been a factor in attracting some companies to Utah. It should receive more funding, the study said.
The role of research in colleges and universities also is critical to developing home-grown industry, as well as providing the atmosphere conducive to attracting research money, but the competition will get tougher as more states promote the research-economic development pattern.
The state may have to bolster its support of higher education to be competitive, the report said, including contributing more money to the Centers of Excellence Program and possibly making loans available for top researchers to help them establish businesses.
The return on such investments could be high. The University of Utah, for instance, has assisted in development of 57 companies through its Research Park. These companies employ 4,200 people with annual payrolls exceeding $120 million.
Perceptions about public education in Utah are reflected in statistics, the study says. The factors commonly used to evaluate elementary and secondary schools include average teacher salaries, pupil-teacher ratios, high school graduation rates and per-pupil expenditures.
Utah students perform well in comparisons with peers across the country in the areas of high school completion, continuation to higher education and pre-college test scores, but the state spends less per student and has lower teacher salaries than most states. Business people considering a site location may see the comparatively low support of public education as a deficit.
"The most important fact to be recognized is that Utah schools are being constantly evaluated nationally, based on comparative statistics. If the state is to emphasize education as an economic-development strength, then Utah must compare favorably," the report said.
The League notes that Lucas Western Co., in its appraisal of potential location sites, chose Park City partly based on the strength of its school system. The district has the highest per-pupil expenditure and the highest paid and best academically prepared teachers in the state. The district has a relatively high voted leeway to support the quality in its system.
The report summarizes that "Education appears to be essential to economic- development success. Alone, it may not guarantee success, but it is viewed as an essential ingredient, as evidenced by the fact that education is the No. 1 priority in the economic-development plans of the current governors of all 14 Western states . . ."