Utah businesses turn to higher education for a hiring edge in a tight labor market

Utah’s eyepopping 1.9% unemployment rate is a new low that politicians often tout as a sign of the state’s booming economy. It also adds fuel to a post-pandemic labor shortage that stretches on as businesses struggle to find workers. Increasingly, employers are looking to education for help.

The Utah System of Higher Education has been holding public meetings with leaders in industries like tech and health care to understand what adjustments need to be made. On Friday, they heard from the manufacturing sector, a huge and growing industry that accounts for 1 out of every 5 jobs in Utah and pays about 40% above the state average.

Leaders said the talent crunch they’re facing is urgent. The traditional model of students going off to a university or technical college for additional training takes too long and now they’re having to step in.

“Industry needs to do its part,” said Matt Wardle, CEO of JD Machine Corp., a component parts supplier in Ogden. “We have to be very closely tied to education and steering the curriculum. Work-based learning is critical in this entire process.”

The relationship between industries and schools has been growing, but it’s often slowed by bureaucracy and outdated requirements. Even students already working in labs while getting degrees often have to leave their jobs to go to a lab course at a university, said Jeff Nelson, chairman of Nelson Labs. That amounts to a huge waste of time and a missed opportunity.

Chuck Taylor, president of airplane manufacturer SyberJet in Cedar City, said he’s been working with Southern Utah University and Southwest Technical College to allow employees to get additional certifications and training that complement what they learn on the job. While SUU’s Aircraft Maintenance Technician Program recently received a new certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, Taylor’s now going through a similar process but waiting on approval.

“This particular program is a great progression for our employees,” he said. “But it’s going to take cooperation from higher ed as well as the accreditation boards. But it’s worth it, I believe.”

The shift ultimately amounts to better opportunities for students. Business leaders say they’re not only having to offer higher pay but also create more supportive workplaces by offering flexible schedules, mentorship and making sure employees have opportunities for growth.

“Employees have so much choice right now,” Nelson said. “We’re all doing a lot to invest in culture.”


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