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John Florez: Utah must take advantage of diverse population

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Watch out, Utah, there's a train wreck ready to happen.

All this month, businesses, elected officials and educators have been told Utah is undergoing transformational change driven by technology, demographics and globalization; it's pervasive, irreversible and cumulative. "Utah … will continue to become more diverse … age, culture, language, minority, race, religion and socioeconomics." Utah's future is directly related to how we build upon those demographics for the global economy, according to Pam Perlich, senior economist, University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research, who spoke at the Governors' Economic Summit as well as his Education Commission meeting.

On the other hand, we have state lawmakers, such as Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, who want to pass immigration laws similar to Arizona's. He supports a bill, SB251, that requires employers to use E-Verify to prove U.S. citizenship. His stand today is contrary to his earlier position when he opposed a similar policy in the national ID Verify program. Furthermore, he now wants to supersede existing laws that grant rights to undocumented immigrants, including in-state tuition and driving privilege cards.

Does there have to be a train wreck? Who will stop it, business? The Salt Lake Chamber "views immigration reform as an incredible opportunity for Utah and the federal government to … utilize it as a tool to improve the Utah economy. We reject any approach that does not implicitly recognize the power of immigration as a catalyst for positive change." That was yesterday; today, will the Chamber still advocate for immigration reform or will it sit back and allow our economy to falter in the world marketplace?

And will Gov. Gary Herbert, who initiated these two events highlighting Utah's transformation, take the lead in seeing that Utah's more diverse and young population becomes a force for making our state succeed in the new economy? Our current leaders don't seem to grasp the urgency for keeping pace with change — or realize that Utah's more diverse and young population that is bilingual and multicultural is an asset in reaching out to international markets. Rather than limiting opportunities for minorities (which soon will be the majority), Utah should invest in preparing that emerging work force for the global economy. There are 117 different languages spoken by children in our classrooms. That's a plus for today's flat world. They are the new and growing consumer population with large and younger families. They will fuel Utah's economic engine necessary to support a growing aging population.

Utah lacks the visionary leaders needed to take action to educate the diverse pool of young minority students in today's schools — Utah's future work force. It's about reforming education from top to bottom, including how it's paid for, what is taught, as well as where, when and how it's taught — and the ease of moving on to higher learning upon readiness, not seat time. If Utah is to succeed in the new economy, it must invest in preparing students with skills needed in the knowledge economy. America has always used immigration when in need of workers, for building railroads, working in mines, tending crops and in time of war.

The train wreck is almost upon us. Our elected and business leaders appear to have chosen not to heed the warning; do the same as always and be pleased to say we have a well-managed state. It's tantamount to saying we run the trains on time, but are going nowhere. We need leaders who have the courage and the vision to renew our education and employment policies that can take advantage of Utah's demographic transformation. Failure to act will relegate the next generation and our state to mediocrity, leaving us to wait for the train wreck.

A Utah native, John Florez has founded several Hispanic civil rights organizations; been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served on more than 45 state, local and volunteer boards; and filled White House appointments, including deputy assistant secretary of labor and as a member of the commission on Hispanic education. E-mail: jdflorez@comcast.net.