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Guest Opinion: College is not the only path to success for Utah’s students and workers

SHARE Guest Opinion: College is not the only path to success for Utah’s students and workers

I would never discourage a young person from going to college. The value of a college degree can be immense when you look at lifetime earnings. High school graduates can expect, on average, to earn $1.2 million during their careers, while those with a bachelor's degree will earn $2.1 million; and people with a master's degree will earn $2.5 million, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

However, for many young people in Utah, college may not be the best career pathway. Despite Utah being the only state with an average student loan debt of less than $20,000, taking out sizable student loans to attend a four-year college or university can leave many students in a financial hole for decades, delaying major life milestones like marriage, buying a home and having children.

That is why Gov. Gary Herbert and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development launched Talent Ready Utah and the Career Pathways Programs. These programs provide opportunities for young people to receive training and certification in high-demand occupations that pay good wages such as IT, diesel tech, aerospace, medical innovations and, most recently, construction. While still in high school, students can take classes and participate in job shadows with leading industry partners like Dell EMC, Domo, Pluralsight, Microsoft, Qualtrics and Vivint Smart Home.

The newest offering from Talent Ready Utah — the Utah Architecture, Engineering and Construction Pathways Program — launched earlier this year to create a pipeline of jobs for the state’s construction industry. Up and down I-15, new office buildings are being erected, but construction companies are fighting for skilled laborers to complete many of these projects. To address this shortfall, the program encourages students to begin developing valuable trade skills and credentials as early as the eighth grade that they can continue to expand through high school and college.

The burden of training the next generation of workers should not fall just on government programs and our schools. When Stadler Rail expanded its Salt Lake facility, the company promised to not only create 1,000 jobs here in Utah during the next decade, it also launched an apprentice program to help students gain on-the-job training and mentorship during their junior and senior years of high school. If students pursue a college degree, Stadler will pay their wages and reimburse their tuition. This is a model that more businesses in Utah, and across the country, should emulate.

Job training programs like these are important because there is a direct connection between doing well in high school and being able to transition smoothly to postsecondary opportunities or getting a good job when a student graduates. Students acquire the skills necessary for entry-level positions that lead to well-paying careers, increased levels of responsibility and a high degree of personal satisfaction. Being able to learn on the job, get school credit and possibly get paid is a combination that very few students have anywhere else in the country, but students can right here in Utah.

Older workers who are unemployed, underemployed or just looking for a career change can participate in these programs as well. With the U.S. economy shifting further away from one centered around the creation of goods to providing services, many established workers need to have the same opportunities as younger workers to develop new skills and remain employable.

Job-training programs have been a resounding success for the state by keeping some of our best and brightest in Utah after they graduate from high school. More than $15 million in Talent Ready Utah grants have funded 94 projects and created 573 new partnerships, providing work-based training opportunities for 13,000 Utahns during the last decade.

These programs are also critical to fill gaps in the state’s workforce. Utah's tech industry leads the nation in job growth, but there are 6,000 unfilled jobs in Utah’s tech sector alone, according to data from the Department of Workforce Services. Talent Ready Utah’s goal is to fill 40,000 new jobs by 2020 to address gaps like this across numerous sectors and underserved areas of the state.

At GOED, it’s our mission to expand job-training programs beyond the Wasatch Front because apprenticeships can help every corner of the state. The Morgan County School District has been a great partner, extending the program’s reach to new schools and students. No student should miss out on an opportunity just because of where they live.

This year, the Department of Workforce Services will allocate $1 million in 2019 Talent Ready Utah grants. I encourage education leaders and trade associations from across the state to apply for a grant because we need partners in every community to achieve our goals and build a workforce for the 21st century. Every student in our state deserves a pathway to a well-paying job right here in Utah, and the only way we can accomplish that is building bridges between students, educators and business.