SALT LAKE CITY — Much has been made recently about unmet job demand in Utah and across the country, being the direct result of a workforce that simply doesn't have the skills to engage the employment opportunities available.
Now, thanks to a program launched under Gov. Gary Herbert's Talent Ready Utah effort, a small but growing number of Utah students are getting trained for and connected with job placements in advanced industry companies directly out of high school.
And it's an effort that's become the envy of the country.
In just its first two years of implementation, the Utah Aerospace Pathways program has earned national attention as a model for best practices and even been the subject of congressional testimony, according to Governor's Office of Economic Development deputy director Ben Hart.
"These direct employment programs have been tried before in many places but have had poor success records," Hart said. "Here in Utah, our model has demonstrated a very high level of success."
The key, he said, has been building a ground-up, collaborative effort that connects educators, advanced industry companies, and ultimately students in a system that works toward shared successes for all involved.
"We've really just been the conveners in bringing all the groups together," Hart said. "By just getting everybody in the same room and talking to each other, we've been able to problem-solve these innovative partnerships."
It may be unbeknownst to many, but Utah has a growing aerospace manufacturing sector with a particular local expertise centered on advanced composite fabrication. Companies such as Hexcel, Boeing and Orbital ATK are all playing a part in building the products of tomorrow, and for student interns, there's a high level of "cool" factor when they find out they're going to be part of a team that builds an F-35 fighter or Boeing 787 passenger jet.
"I've thought about how amazing it is that I've helped make a part that will be in a plane that people will be flying in," said Benjamin Larsen, an 18-year-old senior at Davis High School and a Utah Aerospace Pathways intern. "I guess there's even a chance that part could be in a plane I might fly in someday."
The part that has Larsen dreaming of flight is a high-tech composite element of a future Airbus A350 widebody passenger jet. The component is one of many fabricated by Orbital ATK in Clearfield.
The company also manufactures parts for Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jet and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner passenger jet. The company is widely recognized in Utah for its rocket engines — and the dramatic test firings of those engines in Promontory — and it has been in the composite materials field for some 60 years.
It's also an industry that's experiencing rapid growth.
"We've been adding about 100 employees a year for the last two or three years," said Bryan Warren, senior communication manager for Orbital. "And we could be looking for even more in the next year or two."
About 40 miles south of Orbital's facility, the Boeing company makes horizontal stabilizers and vertical fins for its next-generation 787 Dreamliner jet at its West Jordan plant.
Last year, Emma VanderHoeven, a Davis High graduate, completed her Utah Aerospace Pathways internship, and just weeks after graduation, accepted a job offer from Boeing to join their manufacturing team as a fabrication specialist.
VanderHoeven said she learned of the program from a Davis engineering instructor, and hasn't looked back since.
"I love what I'm doing," she said. "I love the hands-on work, and when I tell people I have a job building airplanes, they can't believe it."
VanderHoeven said the internship and work she's doing at Boeing match perfectly with her natural interest in engineering. And, she said, she got great support from her family.
"My dad noticed I've always done well in math and thought this would be a great thing for me to pursue to reach my potential," she said.
And the top of that potential is still ahead of VanderHoeven, who is attending Salt Lake Community College while she's working with the goal of transferring into the University of Utah's engineering program in a couple of years.
After a year of employment, Boeing will help her offset education costs with a tuition reimbursement program, a benefit Orbital ATK also offers to its employees.
Hart said the advanced manufacturing entry points created by UAP are a great first step into the job arena with starting annual pay around $35,000 with a lot of room, and support, for advancement.
"The pay is very decent and comparable in our current marketplace," Hart said. "These students are also getting great benefits and working for companies that encourage employees to continue their educations and offer a lot of resources to help them accomplish that."
Hart said 41 students came through the program in its first year, and of those, 15 were placed in full-time job positions.
While it may not appear to be a great success rate, Hart said every student who did not move into employment was either headed for college or committed to serving an LDS Church mission.
Utah Aerospace Pathways had been only available to students in the Davis and Granite school districts, but it expanded this year to Iron County and Ogden, with further growth planned.
And the industry side of the equation appears to be very pleased to have a pipeline connecting their job demands to a new, motivated talent pool.
Michael Gitto, a senior manager in human resources for Boeing Salt Lake, said the program just really, really works.
"Boeing is proud to be an industry partner in this effort," Gitto said. "We've watched this go from a concept to now supplying us with talent. And it is now one of the premiere workforce programs in the country."
For more information about the Utah Aerospace Pathways program, visit uapathways.com.