SALT LAKE CITY — Unemployment in Utah has declined for five straight months, and the state is enjoying one of its most robust periods of economic prosperity after recovering from the Great Recession.
Today, more than 1.4 million Utahns are employed, and the state boasts a 3.1 percent jobless rate — far below the 4.6 percent national unemployment rate.
By economic standards, the Beehive State is at or near "full employment" — typically considered between 3 percent and 6 percent unemployment, explained Mark Knold, senior economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
But even with plentiful employment available, there are still many who struggle to find suitable long-term career opportunities while well-paying positions remain unfilled. To rectify this, the department is offering programs to help people acquire the training and skills necessary to become qualified for those better-salaried jobs.
Last year, Bryan Hasty, 35, found himself working technical support at a local call center. The job was OK, but changes to his work schedule made being there less tenable, particularly as he tried to manage joint custody of his young daughter. To make matters worse, he was barely making ends meet financially.
Then, he was made aware of Utah Aerospace Pathways — a five-week accelerated training program geared toward getting candidates the experience needed for entry-level positions in the aerospace industry.
“The (UAP) program allowed me to get right to work and trained me on the job for the most part,” Hasty said. “It’s been wonderful!”
Upon completion, he applied three times for positions at Orbital ATK and was eventually able to secure a position at the company’s Clearfield facility building composite parts for airliners. The Ogden-area resident said the new job has graveyard shift hours that allow him to be at home for his daughter during the day, which is ideal. And the money is pretty good, too, he noted.
“Previously, I was living paycheck to paycheck, whereas now I’m putting (money) away monthly and living well within my means,” Hasty said. “I never really had any idea I would get into something like this. I’m pleased this opportunity came my way.”
Before finding out about UAP through his stepmother, Hasty was unaware that such programs even existed. Launched in 2015, many Utahns still do not know about Utah Aerospace Pathways, and that's an issue that the state is trying to remedy, explained program manager Melisa Stark. She said the Department of Workforce Services developed several programs to address the need for skilled workers in key industries that are among the fastest growing in the state.
“We’ve been working with industry partners to identify where their biggest needs were,” she said. “(We wanted to identify) what the requirements were to get into an entry level position, but also knowing that there is also a career path that provides additional opportunities for more training or for (candidates) to move up in a particular company.”
The state of Utah has three programs — Utah Aerospace Pathways, Diesel Technician Pathways and Medical Innovations Pathways — designed specifically to address the industry demand for more qualified skilled labor.
The aerospace program costs approximately $500 and provides accelerated training in composite molding, machinists, operators, inspectors, tenders, as well as metal and plastic assembler, with entry level wages ranging from $11.71 per hour to $13.44 an hour. Upon completion, students receive an Aerospace Manufacturing Certificate that permits them to apply for positions with partner companies, including Albany Engineered Composites, Boeing, Hexcel, Hill Air Force Base, Janicki and Orbital ATK. After being employed for one of these companies for one year, employees are eligible for educational benefits to go back to school for additional training, Stark said.
The diesel technician program costs about $3,100 and provides training for bus and truck mechanics, as well as diesel engine specialists with starting hourly wages ranging from $15.29 to $21.69. The medical innovations (life sciences) program costs around $1,200 and includes training for medical and clinical laboratory technicians with starting wages ranging from $11.97 an hour to $14.77 per hour.
Stark said that each of these pathways offers the opportunity for growth and career advancement along with wage increases. Each of the companies involved with the programs also provides tuition assistance for those that want to get additional training, she said.
Knold describes the issue of having jobs available and not enough qualified candidates to fill them as “the skills gap” — the difference in the skills required by employers and the actual skills possessed by the available workforce. However, sometimes people mistake a skills gap for what is more accurately a “wage gap,” meaning positions aren’t being filled because the employers are not offering a suitable wage that people are willing to accept for that job, he explained.
Wage growth is occurring, he said, thanks in part to high growth in the professional and business sector that includes computer technology and engineering services, industries that have grown “4 to 7 percent” over the last three years, he said. Despite that improvement, there are still scores of job postings within that sector, he noted.
With that kind of high demand, the sector could grow even more “if (companies) could get everybody they were looking for.” He noted that health care has also been a high growth industry over the past few years.
A few years ago, Amanda Levorsen, 30, found herself in a “make or break” circumstance. Overnight, her life changed. She was unexpectedly divorced at 24 years old with two boys — including a newborn — and faced with the prospect of providing for her kids with no spouse and only a part-time job as a medical assistant. It was then she decided to pursue the career she always wanted as a registered nurse.
She moved in with her parents and began to put her plan in motion.
“I was going to work full time, in school full time and had (my parents) help me out with the kids,” Levorsen said. Over the next 3 1/2 years, she powered through — managing her various commitments through what she described as a “rough” period.
“Pretty much I was gone from the house from 7 a.m. till 11 p.m. every day,” she said. Some nights, she was able to make it home by 9 p.m. and spend time with her sons before bedtime, but those were rare occasions, she said.
She learned a lot about herself during those challenging times, she said.
“I made myself stronger,” Levorsen said. “I was pretty determined.”
Her perseverance paid off immediately as she was able to find a nursing job before graduation and is now firmly entrenched in her new career. She credits support from a DWS training program that was instrumental in helping her find day-care resources and financial assistance during her most difficult period for making her success possible. Today, she is proof that hard work and dedication can pay off for those willing to make the necessary commitment and take advantage of the resources that are available.
“You have to sacrifice now, so you can live better later,” Levorsen said.