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Demand outpacing supply of Utah tech and engineering grads

SALT LAKE CITY — McKenna Drysdale had been interested in engineering long before she decided to pursue it as a career. The Layton native first became intrigued as a young person when she discovered prosthetics and determined that she wanted to choose a career in which she "could make a difference to people."

"I was really good at math and science in high school. A teacher suggested that I go to an engineering summer camp at Utah State (University)," she said. "I loved it!"

Today, she is a sophomore in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah with ambitions of one day designing medical devices. Upon graduation, Drysdale will be in the enviable position of having a degree and skill set in high demand in the Beehive State.

A recent study commissioned by the Utah Technology Council surveyed 40 of the state’s 5,000-plus high-tech firms. According to the study:

The number of software developers and engineers employed by those 40 companies in Utah was nearly 8,200 last year, up from 4,703 in 2013's survey.

The study showed that as of this month there were 1,105 open positions within those companies with 527 of those positions for software developers and engineers, compared to 391 in 2013.

72 percent of respondents said they plan to increase their employee count over the next 12 months, filling 1,845 open tech positions with 1,079 of the jobs going to developers and engineers.

Starting annual salaries are more than $60,000 a year, with many positions currently paying between $75,000 and $105,000 per year.

“We’re one of the hottest innovation communities in the country,” said Utah Technology Council president and chief executive officer Richard Nelson. “Demand for software developers and engineers far outstrips the ability of our colleges, universities and applied technology colleges to produce those graduates and skilled talent.”

He said 74 percent of survey respondents said they recruit out of state compared to 63 percent in the same survey last year.

“When a company can’t find enough talent in a hot market like Utah, it has to open offices elsewhere,” he said. The result is lost economic opportunity for the state.

Meanwhile, the University of Utah’s College of Engineering is trying to meet the state’s demand for qualified graduates. Last year, it awarded 753 undergraduate and graduate degrees, more than double the number in 1999. Yet according to the council's study, 70 percent of companies surveyed said they were still having difficulty finding enough qualified candidates from Utah universities.

Currently, there is a constant demand for developers or engineers, said Edgar Barsegian, business intelligence and technology engineer for Utah-based Alliance Health.

“With the current rate that big data companies are emerging in the Salt Lake Valley, the skill set required is hard to find to accommodate the growth,” he said. Addressing the challenge should start at the educational level, he said.

Get the word out

“Have workshops at (college) campuses that explain the field and its components,” he said. “Have live (demonstrations) to show code development and explain how an infrastructure for a particular company works.”

He also suggested job fairs that explain the career potential and long-term benefits of learning engineering and tech skills.

To address the issue in the short term and long term, Nelson suggested a multitiered approach, including increasing educational capacity beginning in kindergarten and continuing through college.

“We need to be producing (graduates from) more of the high-demand, high-skilled areas that are tied into certificates,” he said. “That needs to be a clearer path for our students.”

Nelson said that not everyone will need to complete a four-year college degree in order to find success in the market. Qualified candidates can also find jobs with associate degrees, certification from accredited applied technology colleges or completion of specialized engineering or tech training programs.

He said the highest priority statewide should be increasing capacity at public learning institutions in high-demand professions like software development and engineering. Making a sustained investment in producing more graduates with high-tech training will pay off enormously in the years ahead, he said.

Some of the state’s top learning institutions are supporting the effort to build the pipeline that will produce the needed human capital for the long-term prosperity of Utah’s economic future.

College graduates

Richard Brown, dean at the College of Engineering at the U. said during the past five years, 83 percent of the Bachelor of Science graduates in engineering stayed in Utah in engineering or a related tech field.

Of all of the graduates with bachelor's, master's or doctorate degrees, 75 percent choose to remain in Utah. These are high retention rates and reflect that there are many jobs in Utah, he said.

To help meet the demand, industry leaders have requested $5 million from the state Legislature to fund the Utah Engineering Initiative, which they say would help statewide engineering programs produce more graduates.

Brown said their current goal is to add up to 400 new graduates per year, though that number would still be short of the demand.

“Before we started growing the technical workforce, companies weren’t moving here,” he said. “Now we’re growing it, and (with the increasing demand) their appetite for engineering graduates has grown even larger. It’s a wonderful problem to have.”

Business and industry leaders laud the state’s efforts to develop Utah’s tech sector, which has attracted significant growth and expansion over the past several years, said Michael Sullivan, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

However, the growth in demand for qualified talent has to be met with a strategic approach, he said, to avoid the potential problen of oversaturating the market with too many engineering grads rather than planning measured growth that will adequately meet the needs of industry over time.

“We are working closely with our partners in both industry and education to develop a pipeline for sustainable job growth in high-tech and IT-related jobs," said GOED executive director Val Hale. “We recognize that there is an immediate need for highly trained workers in these occupations. We need to identify what the long-term demand for workforce will be and develop appropriately aligned education programs."

Developing the workforce

With so much of Utah’s tech and economic growth occurring in Utah County’s “Silicon Slopes” corridor, some companies — including Lehi-based IM Flash — have taken an active role in championing the need to cultivate the talent necessary to meet the ongoing demand for qualified engineering and tech professionals.

The company’s government relations manager, Stan Lockhart, said one of the primary determinations to be made is how long the demand will last. He noted that for the state to continue on its current path of growth, it will need to focus on developing a qualified workforce.

In addition to his professional duties at IM Flash, Lockhart is also the point person for the state’s Prosperity 2020 initiative — charged with facilitating collaboration among industry and educators to give students a strong foundation in science, technology, engineering and math fields. Part of the mission of the plan is to develop a well-trained, homegrown workforce that can fill the employment shortfall, he said.

“The demand for tech jobs is overwhelming,” Lockhart said. “A really important part of the future of our state is to make sure that we are educating kids in the areas where the jobs are.”

He said young people should realize that some of the best chances they have to make a significant difference in the state’s expanding high-tech economy is in engineering and tech. The opportunities available in technology and engineering offer motivated individuals the chance to “make their mark” in ways difficult to find elsewhere.

“Not only can you make a lot of money in STEM-related careers, but you can literally change the world,” Lockhart said. “Technology does things that make people more productive and changes the way we human beings live on this planet. So if you want to change the world in a positive way, getting into these technology and engineering career fields can really bring that kind of satisfaction to you.”

Email: jlee@deseretnews.com, Twitter: JasenLee1