Workers move off to their different areas as UDOT and the Utah Highway Patrol remind drivers to slow down and be alert in constructions zones as they hold a media event in Riverton along Redwood Road on Tuesday, April 10. Utah is a prime example of a state that embodies the principle of work-first, and these recommendations at the national level will only help us improve and provide benefit to other states looking to move more in this direction.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Since President Donald Trump signed the executive order Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility in early April, I have been reflecting on what this means for Utah. The good news is Utah is already ahead of the game because we integrated workforce and welfare programs more than 20 years ago. In fact, last month the Utah Department of Workforce Services was asked to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce on how our integrated model is working.

On March 15, Liz Carver, Utah’s Workforce Development Program and Training division director, testified before the committee about the benefits of combining more than 29 programs into one department, known today as the Department of Workforce Services. We believe this model has been instrumental in Utah’s economic success over the years.

During the hearing, we did not hesitate to provide a series of recommendations to the committee as they discussed welfare reform. The recommendations included:

  • Evaluate federal programs on outcomes instead of activities
  • Integrate programs at the federal level
  • Align work requirements across programs and give states flexibility

Utah is a prime example of a state that embodies the principle of work-first, and these recommendations at the national level will only help us improve and provide benefit to other states looking to move more in this direction.

Only a few weeks later, the president announced his executive order with similar actions. Under the nine “Principles of Economic Mobility,” the following actions were announced:

  • Improve employment outcomes and economic independence
  • Promote marriage and family as a way of escaping economic poverty
  • Address the challenges of hard-to-employ populations
  • Provide more flexibility to states
  • Streamline services
  • Reserve benefits for those truly in need
  • Consolidate duplicative programs
  • Facilitate greater sharing of information
  • Empower the private sector to find solutions to poverty

My first thought upon reading the executive order and then comparing it with our written testimony to Congress was this: Not only did our recommendations to the House Committee fall in line with these actions, but we have been and will continue to align with “work-first” principles.

With that said, is there more we can be doing to facilitate economic mobility among those in need? Absolutely. We cannot rest until everyone who wants to work is working. We are seeing this now with the Dignity of Work phase of Operation Rio Grande. Homeless people who want to work are connecting with an employment counselor to build a plan and take steps to become work-ready. Not all participants can be employed right away, but they are progressing, and we are seeing people who are experiencing homelessness getting jobs more regularly than before.

We are also observing a greater need to overcome skills gaps in our labor force to keep up with the demands of employers. So far, Utah has been able to do this, as is evident with our continued low unemployment rate (3.1 percent) and high job growth (3.3 percent). However, this can only continue if we have a skilled workforce in occupations that are in demand and pay a higher wage. My call to action is to anyone out there who is unemployed or has thought about improving their employment situation: Now is the time to do something about it. You need to increase your skills to obtain the jobs that offer higher wages. These jobs are out there. We know it because they are posted in our free job search system.

Anyone can take advantage of the programs provided by the Department of Workforce Services. Whether you are employed or unemployed, these services can help you find your next job, a better job and a career. We also need more employers partnering with us to connect to education programs and employ those gaining the needed skills. These programs for job seekers and employers are available at jobs.utah.gov.

Don’t forget that Utah is the Beehive State for a reason. We do believe in work, and we are proving it.