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Even as a legislative commission works to chart the future of the state's higher education system, Utah officials say the need for a highly educated, skilled workforce is acute.

SALT LAKE CITY — Even as a legislative commission works to chart the future of the state's higher education system, Utah officials say the need for a highly educated, skilled workforce is acute.

How acute?

Harris Simmons, chairman of the State Board of Regents, said he plans to travel to India later this month "to find skill sets we just can't find here."

" We're a Utah institution and we've always been able to source locally but we have real shortages of highly needed skills. "
Harris Simmons, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Zions Bancorp

"I never thought I'd actually find myself doing that. We're a Utah institution and we've always been able to source locally but we have real shortages of highly needed skills. I could hire cybersecurity people all day long. I know that other companies are the same way. I could keep going down the list," said Simmons, who is chairman, president and chief executive officer of Zions Bancorp.

Simmons, who addressed the Utah Legislature's Higher Education Strategic Planning Commission Monday, said the dearth of highly skilled, educated workers points out a need for lifelong learning, skills that evolve as the economy evolves.

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, said the goal of the commission is to guide the future of Utah's higher education system in the face of a growing state population, higher demands on the state's universities, colleges and technical colleges as well meeting workforce needs.

Michael Bouwhuis, interim Commissioner of Technical Education, said the continued growth of Utah's economy depends on a highly trained workforce.

Employers are clamoring for skilled employees now, he said.

A plumbing business owner in Davis County told him that he could not bid on $33 million of work this year "because we didn't have the people," said Bouwhuis said.

"We're going to stifle the economy unless we figure this out," he said.

College and university presidents alike said the system needs to do more to ensure post-secondary education is accessible, particulary to growing number of students who would be first-generation college students.

Utah State University President Noelle Cockett said many students and families have difficulty navigating Utah's post-secondary education system.

"Right now we're designating (institutions) as tech colleges, community colleges, regional universities and research universities and this whole range of degrees and certificates are often dependant upon which institution were speaking of. My thought is, is there an easier way to get that information out to students and parents?" Cockett said.

During the Board of Regents meeting in July, a regent proposed placing college advisers in public high schools statewide to help students better prepare for entrance exams and guide them through admissions and financial aid processes.

The "near peer" advisers, recent college graduates, would work with high school students and lift college-advising responsibilities from school counselors who are "overwhelmed" with academic advising, student behavior issues and student mental health needs, Cockett said.

"That leaves them very little time to help on college options. Is that, maybe, an area that needs to be looked at, advisors who specifically help students navigate the system?" Cockett said.

Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College, said that outreach to Utah families needs to start in middle schools "to identify ways we can start helping students think about college and identify the different ways they can go."

"By the time they're in eighth grade they really need to start thinking about a particular type of curriculum to be prepared to go to college. Those counselors that President Cockett mentioned become very important," Huftalin said.

University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said the system also needs to ensure that students achieve the degrees they seek when they enter the system.

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Utah has one of the highest percentages of adults with some college but no degree nationwide.

Watkins, who has been on a gradual, statewide tour since becoming president of the state's flagship university, noted that "there isn't a single community that we've visited who hasn't told us 'Please, more graduates. We need people who are prepared to meet workforce needs, particularly in the sciences, engineering and the health care professions,'" among others.

"That message is coming through loud and clear in every community we've visited," Watkins said.