SALT LAKE CITY — To get the most of Utah's robust job market will likely require a strong educational background or specialized training that can meet the need of employers on the hunt for qualified labor across a wide spectrum of industries.

The state Department of Workforce Services recently reported that nearly 1.6 million Utahns are participating in the current labor force — a rate of 69.2 percent. While that measure along with an unemployment rate of 3.1 is indicative of a vibrant economy, an analyst says the long-term goal for the state is to "make sure there is the best alignment possible" between employers and Utah higher education institutions to match well-qualified candidates for the jobs that are available now and into the future.

"(We have to ensure) what businesses need is being fulfilled by our education and training system so that we get the most efficiently operating labor market possible," said the department's chief economist, Carrie Mayne.

Currently, the state is adequately meeting that demand at the macroeconomic level, she said, but the key for sustained growth will be maintaining the supply of qualified workers along with sufficient wage increase.

"Even though our macro picture says everything is moving forward well, what do we need to ensure that as that economy moves forward it brings everyone wealth as well," she said, "(so that) everyone is experiencing upward mobility."

Mayne noted that though many people have jobs, they may not be well-paying positions, leaving those people underemployed.

The state’s labor force profile shows that 48,700 Utahns are jobless seeking work; 8 percent of the overall workforce has less than a high school diploma; 22 percent have graduated high school; 37 percent have attended some college or received an associate degree, and 34 percent have achieved a bachelor's degree or higher.

To get those higher paying positions, Utahns will have to pursue the qualifications employers are looking for in order to improve their economic fortunes, Mayne said.

Many state institutions of higher education are focusing more of their efforts on making sure that students who enroll in college also graduate with a degree. While approximately 70 percent of students overall who start college finish within six years, when divided by gender the rate of women graduating is actually higher, University of Utah President Ruth Watkins said.

She noted that for years institutions have concentrated on providing greater access into college while focusing less attention on making sure students complete their degree studies. For the next decade, the focus should shift to graduating students who enroll in college, she said.

"Getting people into college and having them leave without the degree (means) we are not meeting the needs of students or society when we let that happen," Watkins said. "Both the individual good and the public good is served by more timely completion of a college degree. Completion is a critical goal."

In general, however, she said the message being received from many employers is the need for more qualified candidates with science, technology, engineering and math degrees and "more people with degrees, period."

"All those industries are also telling us they need all kinds of people," she said. "They need people who can work in (human resources), in business environments, handle finance and accounting and be effective communicators."

She also said industries are interested in a variety of thought and talent in their workplaces.

"The kind of graduates are really changing," she said. "Our industries want diversity. They want women, they want people of color and people who've had different experiences from different backgrounds."

Meanwhile, Utah State University President Noelle Cockett said targeted credentials for particular industries have become more important in recent years.

"People want specific training or specific education in whatever their area of particular interest for that next job opportunity that may or may not be a finished degree," she said. "However employers often look for that finished degree."

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She noted "competency-based credentials" have become favored by some employers in industries such as advanced manufacturing where specific skills are prioritized over a college degree.

Cockett also touted a plan aimed at helping people living in non-metro areas of the state improve their employment prospects. The measure authored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, is in support of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's rural jobs initiative that strives to grow 25,000 new jobs in rural Utah in five years.

"It allows people to learn how to pursue remote online work they could on their own time — not a regular workday — from their own home," she said.

USU extension oversees the program that hopes to promote expanded remote employment statewide through specialized training, she said.

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