I grew up in a small blue-collar community in eastern Ohio with a single public high school. Needless to say, the educational opportunities were limited. It’s one of the reasons I believe in the concept of equalizing options and opportunities for students regardless of ZIP code. And thanks to advances in technology, we can.

Here in Utah, if we’re serious about keeping our economy first in the nation, we must diversify our education system to match current and future opportunities with the right options for all students. I joined the board of the Career Academy of Utah for this very reason. In partnership with Todd Bingham, president of Utah Manufacturers Association; Kelvyn Cullimore, president of BioUtah; and Brian Somers, president of Utah Mining Association, we are working to create a flexible online school with students graduating with Career Readiness Education certifications.

Schools like ours are part of the solution in creating educational pathways to encourage students to experience career options through the exploration of applied skills used in a variety of STEM careers. Select schools like ours across the state are working to fulfill the essential role of getting students into the pipeline by introducing them to the fundamentals of industry at early ages, followed by real world application of those fundamentals. This is a path toward sustained prosperity, economic vitality and personal fulfillment not only for these students, but with benefits applied across the state, as well.

Utah is a hub for natural resources and consistently reports some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Utah’s most current unemployment rate is 2.3% compared to 3.4% nationally. While this is ultimately a good thing, low unemployment results in worker shortages in key areas. Industries like manufacturing, construction, natural resources and health services showed impressive growth, but finding enough people to sustain that growth remains challenging.

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Trade schools and technical colleges have served as the backbone for many of our key industries for decades. But if we want to keep pace, we must reach students earlier. Charter schools have begun to implement hands-on training and industry-aligned skill development for K-12 students as well. Over the past 10 years, Utah charter school enrollment has increased by approximately 40,000 students — a 98% increase. Yet less than 17% of these charter schools are located in rural areas, which limits the choices and access these families have, and speaks to the need for a school like Career Academy of Utah.

For the future of our nation, our citizens, and yes, even our national security, it behooves us to champion industries like mining, oil and gas, or manufacturing domestically. While not as outwardly sexy as say, the tech industry nestled in Silicon Slopes, mining, oil and natural gas development and manufacturing are at the forefront of technological breakthroughs. In our industry alone, we can drill a mile and a half underground, turn that path 90 degrees, drill for another two miles horizontally, and hit a target the size of a refrigerator utilizing some of the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen.

Our kids deserve to see that up close, experience it firsthand and discover what we’ve known for a long time: This is an incredibly exciting industry to be a part of. And opportunity is there to be seized. According to the American Petroleum Institute, nearly 1.3 million job opportunities by 2025 and close to 1.9 million job opportunities by 2035 will be in the oil, natural gas and petrochemical industries. Oil and natural gas has tens of thousands of uses beyond transportation fuel — including lubricant for wind turbines, creation of fertilizers, manufacturing of vital medical equipment, and many others — which means oil and gas is here to stay for a very long time.

I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a town with limited educational opportunities. I now champion an industry that’s a key part of our daily lives. I encourage everyone to consider schools like Career Academy of Utah. If we want to prioritize a bright future and strong economy, schools like ours are a key part of how we get there.

Rikki Hrenko-Browning is president of the Utah Petroleum Association and serves on the board of directors for Career Academy of Utah.