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SLCC Westpointe Center aims to 'close gap' of Utah's workforce needs

SALT LAKE CITY — As Gov. Gary Herbert's education adviser, Tami Pyfer frequently fields telephone calls from business and industry representatives who are searching for skilled workers.

"(They say) 'We need more. We need a skilled workforce. We support public education but there's a gap. How can you help us?' I really wasn't prepared for the enormity of the gap and this problem facing our business and industry partners," Pyfer said.

On Wednesday, some of those same industry partners joined in celebrating the opening of Salt Lake Community College's Westpointe Workforce Training and Education Center in Salt Lake's northwest quadrant.

SLCC President Deneece Huftalin said the $43 million, 121,000-square-foot center was designed and built with the support and vision of industry, government, community and education partners.

"This is the first building in my experience with the college where we have had this kind of community and industry support be so explicitly stated as we went through the building process," Huftalin said.

The stamp of industry partners is evident throughout the center, contributing both state-of-the-industry equipment on which students can learn and train and scholarships to support their educations.

"We will be thanking them for many, many years as they stepped up to help us with this building," Huftalin said.

The center includes 34 lab spaces, eight classrooms and a 3-acre lot for SLCC's commercial truck driving program.

Across SLCC's campuses, 28,000 students are enrolled in career and technical education, commonly known as CTE courses. The community college offers 106 CTE certificate programs and 32 degree programs.

Westpointe has labs for composite materials manufacturing, injection molding, machining, diesel systems technology, 3D printing and 104 booths alone for welding instruction.

Students can also earn certificates in solar photovoltaic sales and installation.

The massive solar panel installation on the roof the facility not only produces electricity for the building, it serves as a learning laboratory for students to compare real-time data and determine how much power the panels produce.

The region, with its soaring economy, "needs skilled workers as never before," Huftalin said.

"I can't tell you how many times I'm in the community where that is the call that I hear. I'm looking at folks in the audience who have made that call very, very loud to me. We are hoping that this building will step up and meet that need for you, that we can entice young people, that we can entice underemployed adults to come back for short-term or certificate retraining and change and pivot their careers into phenomenal high-wage, high-demand positions," she said.

Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said Utah must focus on its workforce in face of economic expansion and the accompanying need to further develop the state's infrastructure.

The new Westpointe Center "is in complete alignment with where we need to be going with our workforce. We have the youngest, most vibrant population in the country and we just need to train and give them the opportunity and we will continue to be a very relevant economy not only in the United States but in this world," Niederhauser said.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, acknowledged the "exciting challenges" facing the state.

"If we use this model we have right now, we're going to be the light on the hill in terms of states that are doing it right, and other states want to follow," he said.

Taking a page from hockey great Wayne Gretzky, Hughes said good hockey players have an innate ability to skate to the puck but great hockey players skate to where the puck is going to be.

The latter could be said of the Westpointe Training and Education Center, he said.

"We talked about this as an idea and then I came and we were part of a groundbreaking. Here we are today, where it is becoming a reality. We're going to see the skilled workforce be able to take advantage of all the opportunities of a state like ours that is growing affords," Hughes said.

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, acknowledged the leadership of Huftalin in bringing the center's vision to reality.

"I think it's noteworthy that we now have women in the state of Utah leading four of the top institutions of higher learning," King said.

Senate Minority Leader Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, said the training center, while thoroughly modern, marks a return to "grassroots" of skilled labor where people make a living with their hands.

"Our economic development is really predicated upon our ability to train workers to go into the workforce," Davis said.