Fidelity Investments worried it would have to scour the West to fill 600 jobs. But the fear was misplaced in Utah, where the work force is growing as fast as the economy.

"We've been very successful recruiting in Salt Lake alone," said Ed McCartney, who quickly discovered a pool of overqualified Utahns working in low-paying jobs. His company will pay a base annual salary of $18,000 to telephone customer-service representatives.Fidelity came to Salt Lake City with 200 workers in 1986 and expects to employ 1,300 by early next year. Not only are the workers well-educated and customer-oriented, there are plenty of them, said McCartney, the senior vice president.

After a decade of reeling from copper, steel, oil, gas and coal layoffs, after seven years of losing more working-age adults than it gained, after years of stagnant wage growth and scant job growth, Utah is flexing its economic muscles.

The 1990s have brought a growth surge unparalleled since the 1970s.

Utah has added 67,000 jobs since 1990, and its average wage has grown 4 percent or 5 percent each year for the past three. Its jobless rate has dropped to 3.3 percent - half the national rate.

It all has occurred as the Beehive State was absorbing 19,000 immigrants - 46,000 new residents counting births - per year, and while the job market was absorbing more than 9,000 workers who have lost their jobs to 1990s defense cuts.

Moreover, economists don't think the prosperity is ephemeral.

"There is no reason to view this as a bubble or speculative or nonsustainable," said Kelly Matthews, economist for First Security Corp.

Utah's residents and newcomers are paying a price, though. Housing costs 14.4 percent more than it did a year ago. There are more homeless people on the streets, and school districts are struggling to educate growing legions of youngsters. Traffic congestion and violence are on the rise.

Despite growing wages, Utah's per-capita personal income remains lower than in 46 other states, at $15,400.

As one newcomer from California puts it, Utah's prosperity is making its leaders shortsighted when it comes to long-term problems.

"Right now they're kind of like drunken sailors in the port for the first time in a year," said Bill Revene, who has found part-time work in the mortgage lending business.

While the populous Wasatch Front thrives and some rural communities carve out niches of prosperity, rural Utah is dotted with hamlets and towns where basic survival is the main concern - places where residents, jobs and prospects are few.

In Garfield County, where more sawmill jobs are expected to be lost this fall, more than 16 percent of the workers were without jobs this summer.

It's a have/have-not contrast the state wants to erase. With federal help, it has set up small business development centers at colleges and universities in seven towns.

Two eastern Utah communities have established business incubators to help start-ups. The Department of Commerce has been restructured to send more consultants into rural Utah.

The state also is trying to recruit businesses tailor-made for certain areas, such as bike accessory manufacturers for Moab, the center of slick-rock biking mania.

But spreading the wealth to rural Utah won't be easy. Small towns have a tough time selling themselves to industry, Matthews said.

"It's not an easy answer to find something that distinguishes your town," he said.

Some towns with colleges have found they have a selling point.

Take the case of Discovery Research Group. The survey and political opinion polling company, which got its start in Salt Lake City, opened a small research center in Cleveland, an eastern Utah town of 498, in February 1992.

It hired several dozen part-time workers, many of them homemakers and students, to make calls throughout the country. By June, however, President Tom McNiven closed the center and moved it 20 miles north to Price, a larger town and home of the College of Eastern Utah. College students were found to be better suited to the unpredictable work, which pays $7 to $9 an hour.

"Rural Utah is helping us to compete," says McNiven. Space is about a third as expensive as in urban centers, and other costs of doing business are low.

The company now has centers near colleges in Logan, Ogden and Pocatello, Idaho. If the company gets several contracts it is bidding on, employment could double next year, McNiven said.

Lecia Parks Langston, chief economist for the Utah Department of Employment Security, said the real job growth has been in the services sector, including software-makers and health-care industries.

They have added about 40 percent of the new jobs this year, Langston said, and they pay $200 to $1,600 more per month than Utah's average wage.

The construction industry also is booming, because of major industrial projects and residential construction.

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This is the last in a seven-part series looking at the Rocky Mountain Region, which is emerging as a national economic leader and is expected to be a major player in the future global marketplace. Stories profiling Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Idaho ran last week.


(Additional information)

A foundering community through much of the 1980's, Cedar City in the past five years has attracted 15 diverse manufacturing plants with 1,300 jobs, and the jobless rate in Iron County is only 3.7 percent. See Page B10.

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