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How Utah can solve its worker shortage and keep a strong economy

Businesses need to adapt to modern realities in order to attract and keep quality people.

A sign offers $21.19 per hour for school bus drivers.
A “Bus Drivers Wanted” sign is pictured at a Canyon School District building in Sandy on July 19. Utah now has a critical workforce shortage, which, if not handled right, could jeopardize the state’s strong economy.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When Vince Lombardi said, “the man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there” he was pointing out that success requires goals, action and honoring the process, which almost always requires overcoming adversity.

In fact, it is often the process of how obstacles are met that makes the difference. This is something Utah understands as it currently sits atop the proverbial economic mountain.

We did not arrive here by chance. Over the past decade, there has been a concerted effort to build a diversified economy, create jobs and keep our upward economic momentum. As a consequence, the state was better prepared than most to meet the challenges of COVID-19, and from the outset of the pandemic, we took bold action that balanced the imperatives of public health and economic strength. The result was an economy that stayed open and kept growing.

Our challenge now is how to address a critical workforce shortage and remain at the top? We will explore in detail this challenge at the upcoming Workforce Summit but want to offer a few insights before the event.

Technology is changing: The ability to work remotely and communicate around the world has revolutionized the old industrial-age requirement of having workers in centralized offices eight hours a day. Technology has empowered many employees and given them the ability to work almost anywhere. How effectively businesses leverage this new paradigm will determine their leadership in the emerging economy.

Think Unconventional: Today our workforce shortage is acute. This can partially be solved with second-chance hiring and immigration reform. Criminal records often hold people back from finding a job and can limit advancement. Supporting expungement and offering opportunities for low-level crimes to be removed as barriers can change lives.

Immigration reform, which includes our visa process, must be at the forefront of businesses’ agenda. Leaders must request allowing more immigrants to come, more flexibility where they can work or change jobs, and certainty about the whole process would inject stability into our system.

Invest in labor: A successful workforce is continuously learning, adapting and growing, and for businesses to remain relevant, they need to encourage this individually and collectively; they must invest and train their workforce on the skills of tomorrow.

According to research, upskilling and reskilling programs can improve employee engagement and retention, increase productivity and attract new talent. Additionally, adult learners are significantly more likely to stay at a company longer if it is invested in furthering their careers. Therefore, to remain at the top in the nation and keep our workforce thriving, Utah and our businesses must invest in adult learners. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

Many programs are available to assist those looking to upskill. One example is the state’s Learn & Work in Utah program, which provides tuition assistance for short-term programs at post-secondary institutions for unemployed or underemployed individuals.

Another is the Return to Work in Utah program which is similar to an internship designed for adults looking to re-enter the workforce after an extended absence and provides the necessary experience and training to do so.

Now is the time to utilize these resources to gain skills, change careers or reenter the workforce through these programs.

Create a path forward together: Successful companies encourage ideas among staff to improve processes and outcomes. Businesses should replicate and promote constructive engagement with their employees by creating progression paths with access to resources, arrange career training and offer mentorship opportunities. Ultimately, it is less expensive to develop current employees than having to invest and train new ones.

Utah is thriving, and to maintain its preeminent position will require continued engagement from all parties — public and private.

In his historic years with the Green Bay Packers, Coach Lombardi taught that getting to the top of the mountain was only a precursor to the diligence required to stay there. Enduring success requires consistent effort, constructive adaptation, attention to detail and constant analysis of evolving threats and opportunities. The Salt Lake Chamber and Utah System of Higher Education are dedicated to doing our part and working with an ever-growing coalition of stakeholders to make our bright future a reality.

Dave Woolstenhulme is commissioner, of the Utah System of Higher Education. Derek Miller is president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber