Utah’s humming economy carries a certain note of satisfaction to it. The perpetual lifestyle critics who say the state won’t be accepted until it lets liquor flow free or until it keeps people from flocking to Idaho every week for lottery tickets appear increasingly foolish as the long-trending record unfolds.
For the fifth time in six years, Forbes lists Utah No. 1 for business, noting, among other things, its 3.8 percent growth in jobs in 2015. Meanwhile, Fodor’s named Utah the No. 1 tourist destination for 2016 — in the world, that is. That ought to help a tourism industry that already grew 44 percent over the last decade without Fodor’s help.
| || |
This doesn’t sound like a state suffering from a debilitating reputation problem.
But while it would be easy to look at all this and envision roses poking their way through the snowdrifts, the state does face real problems it can’t afford to ignore. Two recent reports highlight some of them.
The first is a survey by the Utah Foundation, a non-partisan research group, released Wednesday. It asked 151 local businesses what they feel inhibits growth in the state. The overwhelming answer? A lack of skilled or qualified workers.
Of the companies surveyed, 71 percent said they had “some level” of difficulty finding people who could do the job. Nearly one-third said this is the biggest reason keeping them from growing, while 30 percent said this lack of skill is “the worst quality of Utah’s labor pool.”
This ought to raise red flags among state leaders who have supported a goal, set in 2011, to have 66 percent of the state’s adult workforce in possession of a higher degree or certificate by 2020. The goal shouldn’t be merely to have an education, but to have one that matches the needs of an employer.
Which brings us to the second report, a performance audit by the office of the legislative auditor general, released last month. It showed the Utah College of Applied Technology has changed how it reports the number of people receiving certificates, all in an effort to reach the goal of 66 percent by 2020.
Before 2013, you had to earn a program certificate, with an average of 465 hours of work, to be counted. Now, the college counts “occupational upgrades,” which take an average of 60 hours and are completed by people already employed.
This change resulted in a 43 percent increase in the reported number of certificates earned, the audit said.
The report said the governor’s Education Commission made the change to show the number of people receiving “some college.” But the audit said there is no reliable way to count the number of these upgrades.
The college has since decided to define a certificate more narrowly, as an official credential given for a specific mastery of “competencies that are documented as needed by one or more Utah employers.”
But auditors couldn’t help state the obvious, which is that an inherent risk in achieving a goal to have two-thirds of Utahns with a higher degree or certificate is “that we achieve it in part by reducing the value of a certificate.”
One lesson in all this is that real progress takes hard work and innovation. Another is that no one should expect Utah’s impressive economic performance to continue without considerable effort.
Fortunately, some in Utah get the point. As the Utah Foundation survey shows, the state Department of Workforce Services has a program providing grants to groups that educate and train workers, while other collaborative efforts, such as Utah Aerospace Pathways, are attempting to fill needs.
But there are other misguided efforts, as well. Some state lawmakers are talking about removing state corporate taxes, which help fund education. Only 3 percent of the businesses surveyed even mentioned taxes.
None of this should be taken out of context. The state’s economic hum is real. The Utah Foundation survey found 92 percent of the companies surveyed believe Utah is on the right track, and nearly as many national companies said their Utah workers were as educated as those in other states.
But that won’t continue unless the state finds credible ways to improve its unskilled workforce.