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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Kristin Wright and Sara Jones, left, of the Women Tech Council, speak with Emily Coonrod and Amy Hawkins, of University of Utah Health, during a Talent Ready Utah event at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 21, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — For young people in rural communities in Utah, finding a meaningful career path can be exceptionally challenging. Students in high school often find work at local fast-food establishments and have little understanding of what options could be available beyond that field.

But a program funded by a grant through the state Department of Workforce Services is helping some kids in rural Utah and statewide find their way to potentially life-changing career choices.

Talent Ready Utah launched its 2018 grant program late last month aimed at creating more work-based learning and career pathway programs for students and adults participating in the labor force. This year, total funding allocated for grants will be $1.92 million, said Talent Ready Utah grant manager Melisa Stark.

"You have to have industry partners that are involved in your project and you have to show how you're meeting the needs of industry," she said. "We focus on high-growth, high-wage, high-demand occupations. We focus on apprenticeships, career pathway opportunities and workplace learning opportunities."

Grant recipients from last year were on display recently in the state Capitol as a demonstration of their success in developing students and adults with the skills desired in high-demand industries in the regions they serve, Stark said.

One of the challenges with Utah’s strong economy is the demand for a skilled labor force in certain industries, she said. The grants support the program’s vision of supporting businesses as they become involved with education and build the state’s workforce for those in-demand occupations, she added.

Among the recipients involved in the event was Project H.O.P.E. (Health, Opportunity, Practice, Education) at Pinnacle Charter High School in Price. The project offers students in underserved rural areas a four-week, paid internship program at health care facilities within the students' local communities, explained project coordinator Zena Robinson.

"We work collaboratively with (Utah State University Eastern), Castleview Hospital and Workforce Services," she said.

The program used a $200,000 intergenerational poverty grant to address the issues of high joblessness and low employment opportunity in areas like Carbon County and Emery County where few economic options are available to students who graduate from high school, she said.

Upon completion, the students can earn designation as a certified nursing assistant or medical assistant, among other career options.

"It can give them another employment opportunity and hopefully continue their education," Robinson said.

Currently, the newly developed program has just included upperclassmen, but they hope to expand to include underclassmen as well, if they are successful in securing another grant this year, she said.

Another returning applicant is the Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program based at the University of Utah. The program seeks to improve the postsecondary academic and employment success for individuals with a variety of mental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, dyslexia or Tourettes syndrome, said program director Valerie D'Astous.

"We're encouraging students from high school into (college) to tell them about the opportunities (that exist)," she said. (People with autism) need the opportunities and they need the support (of this kind of program)."

She said people with autism have the lowest rate of completion in higher education and the highest rate of unemployment, underemployment or misemployment. The program provides training for faculty and staff in academia as well as work-based learning, primarily in STEM fields, she noted.

"We (partner) with tech companies and others in the community that will give them the experiences (in the workplace)," D'Astous said.

Because neurodiversity is a new concept to many people, she said there is a hurdle to climb to get educational instructors and employers to understand the accommodations that may need to be made for individuals with most neurological disorders like autism — the most common condition, she said.

Finding commensurate employment for people with autism can be especially difficult, she said, even for those who are well-educated.

"I have a student who graduated six years ago with a degree in chemical engineering and he works at a pizza place," D'Astous said. "(It's) because they can't get past the interview process."

Because individuals on the autism spectrum think so literally, they often have a hard time relating to others socially, she noted, and employers don't know how to deal with their issues. But programs such as Talent Ready Utah have made it possible to begin to address the matter so that people with neurological conditions can attain some of the career success that has evaded them for so long, she said.

One two-time grant recipient is Women Tech Council — a nonprofit organization focusing on women in the technology sector working to build, innovate and mentor each other to advance their careers. The group has used the grant funding to increase efforts to develop a sustainable platform that focuses on retaining women students in STEM degree programs, said co-founder Sara Jones.

"There's a lot of reasons why women step out," she said. "It becomes difficult, you become isolated (or) you're one of a few women in the program."

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The goal of their grant program is to help women "in mid-degree" to stay in their academic major and eventually graduate with a STEM-related degree, she said.

"If we can increase (the completion rate), then we impact the workforce and a lot more will stay and go into the workforce with a STEM degree under their belt," she said.

Obtaining additional grant funding would help continue their efforts to develop more homegrown talent that would progress into the burgeoning Utah tech workforce, Jones said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said the Talent Ready Grant program launched this week. It launched late last month.