In the mid-1990s, Gov. Michael Leavitt asked then Lt. Gov. Olene Walker to lead the Workforce Development Task Force to determine the possible consolidation options for Utah’s employment, job training and public assistance programs. At the time, there were 29 or so programs between five state agencies. Leavitt said it best: “It just cried out for a better solution.”
I remember this time well. I was only a few years into my career working for one of the employment programs. The transition was not easy, but looking back it was necessary and visionary of both Leavitt and Walker. Becoming one department with both the workforce and public assistance programs was unique and innovative. Walker knew at the time that bringing these programs together was a better way to serve the people of Utah. She saw this vision through until the signing of SB 166 in 1997, officially creating the Department of Workforce Services. It is a great honor to soon have the department’s administration building named the Olene S. Walker Building.
In the 20 years following, Utah has been recognized for having one of the nation’s best-functioning unemployment insurance programs, a highly efficient eligibility determination program for public assistance, and most recently, the ability to effectively implement the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed by Congress. Utah leads the nation in utilizing technology and transitioning to online services, all while maintaining exceptional customer service and efficiency.
Because of the past executive leadership of Robert Gross, Raylene Ireland, Tani Downing and Kristen Cox, I now have the opportunity to work with many Workforce Services employees on several important issues facing the state today. From homelessness and affordable housing to serving vulnerable populations, such as individuals with disabilities, veterans, refugees and families in poverty. In addition, we are the source for a vast amount of economic data that helps the job seeker, business owner and elected official make informed decisions.
Why is this important for the people of Utah to know in today’s current economic climate? The answer is simple: Because now is the time for anyone considering improving his or her employment situation to do something about it. This is a message for those who want to become employed, improve their job skills or find more fulfilling work. The state’s economic data tells us there are great opportunities in multiple industry sectors. And more importantly, the Department of Workforce Services is prepared to connect you with these opportunities.
The state of Utah is working to build more partnerships between industry and education that lead to employment in high-demand, high-skilled and high-wage jobs. Workforce Services is supporting these programs through Talent Ready Utah, an initiative launched by Gov. Gary Herbert, that builds work-based learning programs within public education, higher education and applied technology colleges. This is all good news, but, right now, Utah needs more adults within our labor force to take advantage of these opportunities and gain the skills needed for a higher-skilled, higher-wage job.
As the Department of Workforce Services marks its 20-year anniversary, my hope is for the people of Utah to know this department was built to do this very thing — strengthen Utah’s communities by supporting the economic stability and quality of our workforce. If you are in need of services, economic data, or guidance to a program that will prepare you for that next opportunity, now is the time to reach out to the Department of Workforce Services. Anyone can access these tools and services online at jobs.utah.gov or at more than 60 employment centers and vocational rehabilitation centers located statewide.
This is the vision Walker had 20 years ago, and the department continues to do it now better than ever.
Learn more about the history of the department by visiting jobs.utah.gov/20years.
Jon Pierpont is executive director of the Department of Workforce Services.