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New report underscores tech is 'rocket fuel' to Utah's economy

Beehive State has 'one of the top tech economies in the country,' expert says

Venkata Mutyala, left, and Joey Davenport work at Pluralsight in Farmington on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
FILE - Venkata Mutyala, left, and Joey Davenport work at Pluralsight in Farmington on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.
Ravell Call, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Data gathered in a new report shows that Utah's juggernaut tech economy is continuing to gain momentum, leading the country in job growth and among the top 10 states for tech jobs as an overall portion of all occupations.

And while the average wage for tech workers in Utah is lagging behind the national average, it's still almost double the average for non-tech jobs.

Local economists and tech leaders say they're not surprised by the positive metrics gathered in the Computing Technology Industry Association's 2018 Cyberstates report, but also underscored some critical challenges, including how to fill thousands of current tech job openings, that need to be addressed to keep the state's tech mojo rising.

To be clear, the entirety of Utah's economy has been on a tear. Even though the state's 3.9 percent tech job growth, noted by the association's report, outstripped the nation-leading, overall job expansion rate of 3.1 percent in 2017, it still fell far short of the 5.4 percent expansion of Utah's construction-related occupations.

Heather Tuttle

Ben Hart, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said Utah's diverse but intertwined economy was bearing a wider benefit from the tech sector's ongoing vibrance.

"I think we've moved past the point of being an up-and-comer and can now consider ourselves one of the top tech economies in the country," Hart said. "The fact that we're No. 1 in year-over-year growth in tech, when viewed through the bigger context, shows that our entire economy is sort of intrinsically linked into tech right now."

Utah's tech vital statistics, as gathered by the Computing Technology Industry Association, all point to excellent economic health and include:

• Utah has 135,500 tech employees (including self employment)

• There were 4,680 new tech jobs added in 2017 (including self employment)

• Tech employment represents 8.6 percent of overall workforce

• There are 6,531 tech businesses (firms with payrolls)

• Utah had 26,020 tech job postings in 2017

• There was a 42.2 percent growth in emerging tech job postings last year

Hidden within those numbers, however, are some red flags that have not gone unnoticed both by those looking to grow their tech business as well as those tasked with working to keep the Utah trends moving forward.

At the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in January, Pluralsight CEO Aaron Skonnard pointed out to almost 15,000 attendees that the state needs to double down on efforts to build a robust education pipeline to help address the 4,000 or so unfilled tech positions in Utah.

Skonnard, whose company specializes in cloud-based tech education courses and has made it a personal mission to work toward better public school preparation for tech-centric jobs, said failing to do so could not only interrupt Utah's robust growth in the tech sector, but send it tumbling the other direction.

Hart said unfilled jobs, not just in the tech world but across all sectors, are a reflection of an economy with functional full employment and noted it also highlights the need, as Skonnard pointed out, to build the tech employment pipeline.

"Four thousand unfilled tech jobs might even be a little bit low," Hart said. "Our growth is only limited by the number of people we can find to fill these positions. Looking forward, we need to provide our students with the things they need to occupy these jobs."

Hart's comments come from an agency that has multiple efforts underway to do exactly that. In addition to GOED's work under the various Talent Ready Utah programs and STEM Action Center, it will also oversee a newly minted, $2.5 million tuition reimbursement plan aiming to incentivize Utah graduates to stay in-state to put their new degrees to work.

The program will apply to five degree/occupation areas that have yet to be stipulated, but Hart noted that tech-related degrees "will be at the heart" of that grouping.

While Utah's overall economy has drawn strength from its diversity, Juliette Tennert, the University of Utah Gardner Policy Institute's director of economics and public policy, said the state's tech sector itself is more multifaceted than many might realize.

"There's a lot of variation among Utah's high-tech industries," Tennert said. "Life sciences, manufacturing, data, products … and likely more that we're not even aware of."

In an effort to root out the tentacles of the Beehive State's expanding tech efforts, and mine a deeper understanding of how the sector influences the rest of the economy, Tennert said the Gardner Institute is about to launch its own yearlong study focused on the industry.

Tennert said the Computing Technology Industry Association data is not surprising and supports much of the same trends being watched closely by state economists. She said numerous factors play into the state's ability to attract and/or retain tech, including cost of living, access to amenities and, of course, wages.

And, while Utah's $83,590 annual tech job wage average dwarfs the $46,010 overall average state wage, it's still well below the $112,900 national tech wage average, not to mention the $161,900 that the average Bay Area techie is taking home every year.

Heather Tuttle

Tennert said Utah's very affordable cost of living helps level out those wage differences, but one of the collateral impacts of the state's thriving economy is a rise in life's overhead expenses.

"Utah's cost of living continues to increase and, as that happens, wage differentials become more significant factors," Tennert said. "Right now, a young graduate deciding whether to live, for very high cost, in Silicon Valley versus staying here and being part of a growing tech community and having incredible access to outdoor recreation, affordable housing and reasonable commutes … that bodes well for Utah.

"But, maintaining high quality of life factors will become even more important as costs continue to rise."

While the experts continue to work on identifying, and planning for, trend-wrecking changes, tech is occupying an outsize role in the state's economy. In 2017, it accounted for over 10 percent of the state's approximately $150 billion in economic activity and there are no current signs of slowing.

Utah Technology Council President/CEO John Knotwell, whose trade organization advocates on behalf of issues important to the state's tech sector, said the association's report is just further evidence of the power, and success, of Utah's technology and innovation industries.

"Technology workers and companies continue to be the rocket fuel to our robust economy and the rest of the world has taken notice," Knotwell said. "It's an exciting time to be in tech in Utah."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Utah's 2017 economic activity. It should be $150 billion, not $15 billion..