SALT LAKE CITY — At the same time about a dozen companies were gathered in the Capitol rotunda Monday to celebrate Tech Day at the Legislature, new data was released showing more than 1 in 7 Utah jobs are supported by the state's burgeoning innovation and technology sector.
And with a growth rate that is outpacing other Utah industries, and the national tech employment rate, by a 2-to-1 margin, high-tech businesses are likely to drive an even bigger segment of the state's economy going forward.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who visited with some of the companies displaying their wares Monday morning, said the findings of the tech industry report released by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute earlier in the day showed performance metrics that were even bigger than he anticipated.
"We know that the growth is happening and that it has been big, but I don’t think I even realized how big it really is," Cox said. "Double the growth rate of our other industries, but double the growth rate across the country is a big deal."
The Gardner report found in 2017 that Utah's tech companies were directly and indirectly supporting over 302,000 jobs in the state, while paying out some $20.1 billion in wages and generating almost $30 billion in contributions to Utah's gross domestic product.
Levi Pace, report author and Gardner Institute senior research economist, said Utah's portfolio of tech efforts, which range from multibillion-dollar interests to fledgling startups, are forging the state's status as a force to be reckoned with on the international stage of innovation achievement.
"Utah's tech companies compete on a big stage when it comes to software, IT services, devices and e-commerce," Pace said in a statement. "From startups to billion-dollar valuations, Silicon Slopes' companies connect Utah to the global innovation economy and are key components of Utah's recent economic successes."
State lawmakers are reviewing numerous proposals in the current session aimed at helping to keep Utah's technology industries on a continued growth arc. Joseph Woodbury, founder and CEO of Neighbor, a company that's applied the peer-to-peer model to solving storage needs, said he's encouraged by what he sees as legislators finally catching up, or at least trying to, with changes wrought by tech innovators.
"Utah has always been a business friendly state and we’re starting to become a tech-centered state," Woodbury said. "We’ve been good at nurturing industry and now we’re starting to nurture tech.
"In the past, the Legislature has sometimes been challenged by peer-to-peer ideas ... but as they've become more educated they’re starting to protect those industries," Woodbury said. "They're now realizing that those companies not only provide jobs within those companies but jobs or income to all the Utahns who are their hosts as well."
Woodbury noted some Neighbor storage hosts are earning between $15,000-$20,000 a year through subletting unused storage space in their homes or businesses through the Neighbor platform.
Val Hale, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, said his agency has multiple efforts in play that are aimed at bolstering the workforce challenges that have surfaced as a result of the state's booming tech success. Data from the state's Department of Workforce Services last month showed almost 6,000 unfilled tech positions in the state. Hale noted a number of proposals making their way through the Legislature were crafted to help address building the tech talent pool.
"Tech has been one of the prime drivers of our economy now for probably the last decade," Hale said. "I don’t think it’s a secret that legislators realize this and you’re seeing that manifest in a lot of bills.
"Everyone wants to keep this going and keep the great jobs going and the high wages that come with it."
The Gardner report found annual compensation packages averaged $102,000 for tech employees versus just over $58,000, on average, for other Utah industries. The combined economic wherewithal for the state's tech sector accounted for over one-sixth, or 17.6 percent, of the state's gross domestic product in 2017.
Feeding the education pipeline is a topic that's foremost on many of the state's tech CEOs and founders, and it's an effort lawmakers are working to address. Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, who also oversees tech trade group Utah Technology Council, said his HB227 would, in partnership with state tech leaders, help boost computer science offerings in schools across the state through an innovative grant program. Knotwell said only about half of the state's high schools and middle schools currently offer any computer science courses and the classes are essentially nonexistent at the elementary school level.
"So far, we're seeing wide support for the effort," Knotwell said. "Industry leaders, stakeholders and government alike are behind this.
"I strongly believe that if we can get kids interested and engaged in computer science topics at an early age, they'll be much better prepared for and interested in these classes at the high school and college level."
Cydni Tetro, CEO of tech platform ForgeDX and co-founder and president of advocacy group Women Tech Council, said the state's level of tech success is historic and will only continue growing if challenges can be addressed.
"I think we’re in an uprecedented time for technology in the state," Tetro said. "One of the reasons we’re seeing so much activity here at the Legislature is because we’re also at a juncture where we need to lay a really good foundation for that growth.
"There are a lot of opportunities that are coming with our tech successes, but we need to start planning now how we're going to address critical needs, from infrastructure to education."
Jeff Burningham is a serial entrepreneur and current chairman and CEO of real estate investment firm Peak Capital Partners and is a principal and co-founder of venture capital firm Peak Ventures. He's also considering a run for Utah governor and believes it's time for government to embrace some of the goals that help drive successful entrepreneurial efforts.
"As the economy moves quicker, tech continues to innovate but government, for the most part, remains the same," Burningham said. "We need a more innovative government for the more innovative time we live in."
Burningham also underscored the critical needs to bolster tech education for the state's students in K-12 and beyond.
"Technology and innovation is one of the keys to our future," Burningham said. "What we need to ensure is that our children are educated for the jobs that exist now and the ones that are coming. I think we’re falling short in that regard."