Amid shouts of booming growth in the Beehive State, it may seem odd to hear the CEO of Zions Bancorporation announce he’s off to India to find skilled employees. But such is reality for a growing number of Utah companies facing a shortage of highly skilled local workers. As state leaders address probable gaps in Utah’s education system, they shouldn’t overlook the possibility that industries can do more to keep skilled workers here.
It’s hard to determine out whether the shortage correlates with a shrinking pool of skilled Utah graduates or whether a rush of new businesses has outpaced supply of qualified candidates. Either way, state leaders are right to express concerns over the gap. If companies can’t source enough local talent, then Utah’s favorable business conditions and quality of living aren’t as incentivizing as they could be for new companies to start or move here.
While the shortage tends to fall in the technology and engineering industries, nearly every company is burdened by the realities of the internet. When once a security guard roaming the perimeter of a brick and mortar store constituted “security,” now troves of personal digital data must be safeguarded against devious actors, requiring a skilled team of cybersecurity experts.
To correct the shortage, the State Board of Regents and various university presidents have suggested Utah take a second look at how it prepares young students to enter college and earn advanced degrees. Helping eighth-graders prepare for college is good, but it would be unwise to pressure junior high students to pick a preset educational path at such a young age. A rapidly changing global economy will require a core set of skills applicable to a variety of professions, some of which don’t yet exist. Not to mention interests change, and students are more likely to stick with a degree if they don’t feel locked in to a choice made years earlier.
On the other hand, ensuring young students are fully aware of their post-secondary options will be a positive step, especially if that means promoting trade programs and vocational schools. Institutions such as Utah Valley University and its dual-mission model give an array of options for high school graduates or for those already in the workforce and who need to upgrade their skill set.
Beyond the realm of education, companies also must take responsibility to provide competitive compensation to qualified candidates in addition to opportunities for growth and development.21 comments on this story
A 2015 jobs study from Utah’s Department of Workforce Services found only 2 in 10 employers thought low salaries were an overriding issue for difficult-to-fill jobs, but 68 percent of Utah establishments offered wages below the median for that occupation. There may be a disconnect between what employers are willing to offer and what it takes to maintain a highly skilled workforce. As the study concludes, it’s unreasonable to attribute the skills gap solely to a lack of training or education among candidates.
The competitive advantage currently enjoyed by Utahns could prove fleeting without ongoing access to talented workers. Although the precise reasons for a highly skilled labor shortage are likely many and gradated, it’s clear that solutions will require strong leadership from government, businesses and educators alike.