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In our opinion: Utah's labor market

In regions all across the country, jobs and the economy have been among the most pressing concern on the minds of citizens. This was true in Utah in both of the last two gubernatorial election years.
In regions all across the country, jobs and the economy have been among the most pressing concern on the minds of citizens. This was true in Utah in both of the last two gubernatorial election years.
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The reason that “jobs and the economy” have fallen from the first priority to the fifth priority among Utah voters is explained at least in part by some rather obscure Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers.

The Utah Foundation recently released the results of a statewide survey of “The Top Issues and Concerns of Utah Voters for the Election.” Each gubernatorial election year since 2004, the Utah Foundation has focused on gaining a better understanding of what is important to Utah voters. This year, as part of the Utah Priorities Project, the foundation has released the first in a series of survey results that include a tabulation of the voters’ top concerns.

Much of the attention regarding the results has focused on the fact that health care and air quality have jumped to the top of the list of voter concerns. These concerns will no doubt receive heightened attention in the state election campaigns that will be ongoing from now until November. That heightened attention will likely influence the elections in ways that will allow the state to make positive progress in these two important areas.

But the survey results also reflect a rather unusual recent accomplishment that distinguishes Utah from most other states in the nation. In regions all across the country, jobs and the economy have been among the most pressing concern on the minds of citizens. This was true in Utah in both of the last two gubernatorial election years when voters who responded to the Utah Foundation survey ranked jobs and the economy as their No. 1 concern. What is unusual is that in this year’s survey this concern has dropped sharply to No. 5 on the list of priorities.

It has been a well-publicized fact that Forbes has ranked Utah the No. 1 best state for business in the country. While Utah is the envy of other states in this regard, the more impressive statistics — the ones that most benefit individual Utahns and their families when it comes to jobs and the economy — are disclosed in a rather obscure labor market database maintained by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW).

Between the third quarter of 2014 and the third quarter of 2015, Utah had the highest annualized rate of job growth (3.7 percent) of any state in the country. This alone would normally be enough to declare a major state victory in a national economy that has been struggling to fully recover from the Great Recession.

But the real economic benefit to the state is a combination of job growth and wage growth. The QCEW survey includes a measure of the growth in total quarterly wages that takes both of these into account. While the country as a whole has struggled with stagnant wages despite job growth, Utah benefitted from substantial growth in both of these areas. As a result, over this same one year time frame, Utah’s total quarterly wages grew at an annual rate of 7.25 percent which placed it a close second among the 50 states, and far above the national average. To put this in perspective, this represents an increase of $3.9 billion in total wages earned in the state on an annualized basis.

With a $3.9 billion increase in annual wages in the state, it’s not a complete surprise that voters’ concerns about jobs and the economy fell from the first to the fifth priority. The QCEW data also indicate that the wage growth has been surprisingly balanced across both low-wage industry sectors as well as high-wage industry sectors, which is an essential element in avoiding income inequality.

With the prospects of continued growth looking very bright for Utah, voters must hold elected officials accountable for ensuring that all Utahns — not just those at the top of the income bracket — continue to benefit from the nation-leading economic growth the state is experiencing.