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If the state wants to make a significant impact on upward social mobility, it could work harder to recruit and retain more students from lower-income and less-advantaged households.

To sustain a growing economy, Utah needs a skilled workforce. And yet the state is struggling to keep up. The new “Talent Ready Utah” program, led by Gov. Gary Herbert and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development or GOED, offers one potential solution to Utah’s workforce woes.

According to Val Hale, executive director of GOED, one thing that’s holding back Utah’s otherwise robust economy is a properly trained workforce.

Their solution is to create partnerships between public education, industry and the state, recruiting businesses that will “invest in local and higher education to better prepare the state’s future workforce.” The Governor’s Office hopes that the Talent Ready Utah program will help the Beehive State achieve Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal of 40,000 new “high-skill, high-paying jobs” by 2021.

The program desires to replicate with other businesses the partnerships Utah has already built with aerospace manufacturers. The Utah Aerospace Pathways program allows workers and high schoolers to graduate or earn significant credit toward a certificate in aerospace manufacturing with the opportunity to begin working directly for a company like Boeing as a machinist, technician, assembler or inspector. Meanwhile, the aerospace manufacturing certificate is also “stackable” toward a four-year university program.

Some employers even pay tuition expenses for hires who are willing to stick around. This kind of collaboration is not only helpful in aligning educational training with industry, but it also can potentially help Utahns rise out of difficult socio-economic situations.

Earlier this year, the Equality of Opportunity Project released a “Mobility Report Card” ranking schools nationwide based on their ability to improve intergenerational mobility as measured by the percent of students that come from the lowest economic quintile that, by their 30s, have personal income levels in the highest quintile. According to this metric, Utah schools do not perform well.

While the research found that the state’s colleges and universities produced many high-income earners, relatively few came from the ranks of the lowest economic quintile. What’s more, Utah universities are among the very lowest in the country when it comes to successfully recruiting students from low-income households.

The Talent Ready Utah program may represent one method to improve upward mobility. Ideally, these industry pathways could help economically disadvantaged students earn wages and benefits right out of high school with an industry certification. Down the road, the certification could be used toward a college degree that may even be paid for by an employer.

With that said, when there’s talk of industry partnerships with higher education, some within the academy may fear a scenario in which industry, rather than the universities, begin calling the shots in terms of graduation requirements and thereby potentially encroach on the important principle of academic freedom. While such concerns are not altogether unfounded, the experience with the Utah Aerospace Pathways program demonstrates that partnerships between education, industry and government can in fact be fruitful exchanges.

Indeed, these partnerships also offer the possibility that industry leaders will learn from educators, and vice versa, and that Utahns across the economic spectrum will benefit from the increased opportunities that result.