Utah’s economy took quite a hit in the last recession, losing 100,000 jobs and faring worse than 31 other states. Yet Utah’s recovery has been stronger than all but two other states, and the state is in a strong position for significant growth going forward.
That was the message state lawmakers are being told by University of Utah officials as they begin to prepare for their 2014 session. Even during the darkest days of the crisis, Utah’s state government was exceptionally well managed and fiscally responsible, and the private sector remained an outstanding place to do business.
We congratulate elected officials and private citizens who brought Utah through one of the most significant economic challenges the state has ever faced. However, now is not the time for resting on laurels and indulging in too much self-congratulation. If Utah wants to keep the momentum going, it has a lot of hard work ahead of it, and that is another message lawmakers need to hear.
Utah’s economy is markedly different from what it was just a few short years ago. The state is seeing tremendous ethnic and linguistic diversity increases as more and more young people from all over the world decide to make their home here. Not all new residents are integrating into the economy in equal numbers. For instance, while 84 out of 100 white students graduate from high school, the same is true of only 40 out of 100 Hispanic students. Lawmakers and educators need to find innovative ways to address this disparity and help students from all walks of life and from disparate backgrounds find ways to succeed. As always, the state has limited resources, and there is little evidence to show that more money alone would solve this problem.
Utah’s population also is aging, which means a vibrant and expanding workforce will be crucial to accommodate such a significant demographic shift. This state has a reputation for being on the cutting of edge of technology, and it has managed to attract a large number of good hi-tech jobs to Utah. The state needs to continue efforts to do so while at the same time finding ways to attract more tourists and out-of-state interest in order to persuade more people to fall in love with Utah and its enriching way of life.
That will be a challenge, considering the nation as a whole is aging, as well. However, Utah has a relatively high proportion of young people entering the workforce each year. It needs to find ways to keep those people from wandering out of state.
Pam Perlich, a senior research economist at the University of Utah, told the Deseret News that, "Utah is forever changed. We are not going back to the demographics of 1950, nor are we going back the economy of 2007." She is right, and Utah needs to embrace this reality without fear. But those new realities need to cause the state to re-examine its policies and tax structure. In the past few years, this state shown remarkable resilience in the face of difficulties, and it’s that strength that can give Utah the courage to face whatever lies ahead.