Would you commit to working in Utah after graduation if you could earn a high-demand tech degree for half-price or less?

SALT LAKE CITY — Would you commit to working in Utah after graduation if you could earn a high-demand tech degree for half-price or less?

Well, that's exactly what a brand new $2.5 million program, created in the 2018 legislative session, is aiming to find out.

As the number of unfilled tech jobs continues to climb in Utah — causing consternation for both industry watchers and local business leaders — the Talent Development Incentive Loan Program is about to launch at state community and four-year colleges.

The program will — for those who stay in the state after graduation and work in one of a select group of tech positions — forgive college debt, including tuition, books and fees on a 1-to-1 basis for every year of employment.

Back in February, when state lawmakers were considering the plan, as proposed in SB104, Abby Osborne, vice president for government relations for the Salt Lake Chamber, told a legislative committee that the state was losing the battle of keeping homegrown talent at home after graduation.

"We export way more jobs than we import," Osborne said. "We’re using our taxpayer dollars to educate them and then we are exporting them. Let’s incentivize them to stay there. What they are going to return to the economy far exceeds what this is going to cost us."

While the program requires undergraduate applicants to have successfully completed one full year on an approved academic track, a student pursuing a bachelor's degree could potentially have their final three years of studies completely paid for if they work in the tech industry in Utah for three years following graduation.

And for a student at the University of Utah, that could mean around $30,000 in debt relief. For those seeking an associate degree, the program only requires completion of one full-time semester for eligibility.

The five "qualifying jobs" as determined by the Governor's Office of Economic Development in partnership with the Utah Division of Workforce Services include software developers, applications; management analysts; computer systems analysts; computer and information system managers; and network and computer systems administrators.

According to data from the Division of Workforce Services, as of Friday there were 1,457 unfilled positions for software application developers and over 750 unfilled jobs for network and computer systems administrators.

Total unfilled tech jobs, statewide, on Friday numbered 5,775 — up from 4,839 at this time a year ago.

Spencer Jenkins, the Utah System of Higher Education's associate commissioner for public affairs, said the $2.5 million is distributed to Utah post-secondary schools based on a formula that assesses the three-year average of graduates in the degree programs that match up with the designated qualifying jobs. Jenkins also explained that each school will be assuming administration duties for the distributed funds, but the parameters for the program will be essentially identical and include the requirement for students to sign a promissory note that puts them on the hook for loan repayment in the event they fail to finish their degree or don't fulfill their in-state work obligations, post-graduation.

Based on the distribution math, the University of Utah will be seeing an apportionment of just over $770,000 for the upcoming year from the program. Brenda Burke, the executive director for the U.'s Office of Scholarship and Financial Aid, said her school is within weeks of making the program available to U. students and believes the opportunity will go over well.

"This is an incentive program that is really intriguing," Burke said. "I think the funding option will be of great interest to our qualifying students."

Burke said her office has conducted an in-house assessment and identified some 1,100 U. students who would qualify for the reimbursement program and believes the funds are sufficient to aid around 90 students this year.

From the perspective of industry watchers and those running tech businesses in Utah, more qualified candidates for empty tech jobs can't come soon enough.

Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance CEO Derek Miller told the Deseret News recently that his organization sees addressing tech workforce issues as one of the most critical challenges for the state to address in order to maintain the vitality of the burgeoning sector.

"Our tech industry is growing faster than any other state in the nation," Miller said. "That’s the good news. But if we want to continue to have a sustainable knowledge-based, innovation economy we’re going to need to continue to focus on workforce development.”

Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said the Talent Development program is set to create tiers of economic benefits for the state that begins with students, but extend far beyond.

"This program … is all about helping our economy grow and helping our students get into high-growth, high-wage occupations," Hart said. "And, it's helping address a key component needed for continued growth, which is the tech workforce. The sector is critical and tied into many other areas.

"As the tech industry continues to thrive … our challenge is to make sure there are people to take these jobs."

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Senate Assistant Majority Whip Ann Millner, who sponsored SB104, said the program will create a direct pipeline to help address unmet need in the tech employment arena, and will also slow the trend of Utah tech graduates looking elsewhere for jobs.

"Workforce is really the key issue in Utah in these targeted tech areas," Millner said. "It's really important for us to find ways to keep our grads in the state as they begin their careers.

"A lot of people don't realize that, right now, we have a net out-migration of baccalaureate tech degree earners."

Students interested in learning more about the Talent Development Incentive Loan Program should contact the financial aid office of the school of their choice.