Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Paul DeGraw, Juan Martinez and Ana Martinez communicate using sign language at the Work Ability event at the Robert G. Sanderson Community Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Taylorsville on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. The job fair was hosted by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Six years ago, Gov. Gary R. Herbert appointed me as the executive director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services as Utah was experiencing a robust recovery from the Great Recession. In September 2012, we had a 5.2 percent unemployment rate with more than 70,000 individuals unemployed and seeking work. The governor was actively touting the strength of Utah’s workforce as a reason for companies to move to the state. In fact, Forbes magazine recognized Utah as “the best state for business,” where it stated, “Utah has a young, vibrant workforce.”

As we recognize national Workforce Development Month in September, I’ve been looking back to consider what has changed about Utah’s workforce over those years. Are we still young and vibrant? I believe the only thing that has changed is that our “young, vibrant” workforce is now employed. Our unemployment rate is at 3.1 percent with less than 50,000 individuals actively seeking work. All labor force measures indicate the state is operating at full employment.

The strength of our economy speaks loudly to the state of Utah’s workforce. Without a skilled, talented, young and vibrant workforce, there is no way Utah would be where we are today with almost every industry experiencing job growth. The state of Utah’s workforce is strong. The question then becomes, can it become stronger and allow for the continued growth of our economy?

Right now, you can knock on the door of any industry organization and ask what is their greatest challenge. I’m certain the response will be finding skilled, talented workforce willing to work. In a strong economy, the labor market becomes tight and employers have to be more competitive in attracting and retaining employees. At Workforce Services, we get asked regularly from industry, “where is the hidden workforce?” I think about this question often and ask myself, “Is there a hidden workforce?”

I’ve come to the conclusion that the hidden workforce that can help solve industry needs right now is our actual current workforce. While several statewide programs and initiatives are targeting K-12 for building the workforce for the future, I believe as businesses continue to grow, Utah’s workforce must grow as well. The state’s labor force profile is telling:

  • Labor force: 1,592,909 (69.2 percent participation rate).
  • Unemployed seeking work: 48,700.
  • Education attainment:
  • Less than high school: 8 percent.
  • High school: 22 percent.
  • Some college or associate degree: 37 percent.
  • Bachelor's degree or higher: 34 percent.

A few things jump out when reviewing the data. First, we are above the national average for labor force participation rate, but we are still below our pre-recession average of 72.1 percent. Second, even with a low unemployment rate, there are still 48,700 individuals currently seeking work. Lastly, we need to increase the education and skill levels of our labor force. We tend to be above the nation in almost every economic and labor force measure, but we are on par when it comes to higher education attainment. The above percentages equate to more than 700,000 of our current workforce having less than a bachelor’s degree. This doesn’t mean all these individuals need more education, but it does indicate opportunities for growth. For these reasons, I believe the “hidden workforce” in Utah is our current workforce.

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I encourage any Utah citizen who is either unemployed or working, but not in the job or career they want to be in, to take advantage of the current strength of the economy and make the move now to improve your employment situation. This might mean enrolling in a training program to gain additional skills and credentials, or it might be looking at the demands for employment in a different occupation where current skills are transferable for a higher-wage job. Be bold and willing to take a risk.

It is a job seeker’s market, and the Department of Workforce Services is here to help you either online at jobs.utah.gov or in one of our more than 30 employment centers statewide.