clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Guest opinion: Utah needs more qualified workers to continue economic expansion

In this Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, file photo, factory workers assemble the cases of air conditioners on an assembly line at a factory in Jiaozhou, eastern China's Shandong Province.
In this Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, file photo, factory workers assemble the cases of air conditioners on an assembly line at a factory in Jiaozhou, eastern China's Shandong Province.
Mark Schiefelbein, AP

An article in the Jan. 18 edition of The Wall Street Journal highlighted how Utah’s labor force growth is fueling economic expansion. The article mentioned, “Utah has had the fastest growing labor force of any U.S. state since January 2010.” According to the piece, Utah’s labor force has grown an average of 1.9 percent a year from 2010 through January 2018, more than triple the nation’s 0.6 percent pace. “More workers means more output, income and consumer spending. These trends, in turn, attract more employers and workers, fueling a virtuous cycle of growth.”

As an employee of Northrop Grumman, I know that the company, a longtime investor in higher education, has been working with other industry partners and state leaders to ensure that Utah’s workforce expansion continues to include highly qualified engineering graduates. Thanks to the legislative-sponsored Engineering Initiative which funds growth in engineering and computer science degrees, the number of technology graduates that the Utah System of Higher Education outputs has increased from 1,375 — when the Initiative began — to 3,283 last year. A request for funding this session will ask the state to continue that investment.

While most of the recent attention on workforce development has been focused on Silicon Slopes and the needs of companies in the emerging IT sector, the critical need for additional engineers among Utah’s defense, aerospace and manufacturing companies is often lost in the discussion. These vital industries have long been the backbone of Utah’s economy. Northrop Grumman, which acquired Orbital ATK last year, has multiple facilities across Utah. Last September, the company announced that in its composites manufacturing facility in Salt Lake County alone, it plans to add 100 jobs over the next several years. Our demand for engineers of all types remains high. This includes opportunities in the electrical, mechanical, systems and software trades.

A 2017 study from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute indicated that the defense industry was responsible indirectly or directly for supporting more than 109,000 jobs resulting in $9.2 billion in economic activity during 2015 — the most recent data available. The study showed federal defense spending accounted for 5.8 percent of Utah’s employment, 7.1 percent of total earnings and 6.2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product. This industry contributes greatly to the Utah economy with impact in every county of the state.

To continue to thrive, our industry along with manufacturing and construction, needs an increasing supply of highly qualified engineering graduates from Utah universities. A recent report by the University of Utah's College of Engineering showed that 85 percent of its graduates over the past five years were still living and working in Utah. Local graduates are much more likely to stay and build long-term careers than engineers who are recruited from out-of-state if their state continues to invest in new opportunities for skilled workers.

Indeed, more qualified workers generate greater industry investment and fuel economic expansion. Companies like Northrop Grumman will continue to invest as long as we can count on a strong supply of highly qualified engineering graduates. The defense and aerospace industry strongly supports the efforts of higher education and state leaders, through the Engineering Initiative, to increase the output of graduates in the disciplines on which we rely.