SALT LAKE CITY — With the start of the 2020 Legislature fast approasching, Utah’s largest business association is laying out its top policy priorities for the new year, the main focus of which is aimed at maintaining long-term sustainable economic growth in the years ahead.

Derek Miller, chamber president and CEO, told the Deseret News that one of the ways to promote growth will be to make sure that “we have people with the skills” to fit the workforce needs of employers looking to hire.

“There’s two specific areas under that category. And the first one is, we are promoting an increase in education, strengthening our education funding. There’s two important things that can happen when we spend more on education. And the first one is that we’re able to pay our teachers more to recruit the best and the brightest that will have a direct impact on the second thing, and that is the outcomes that we accomplish if we have the best and the brightest in the classrooms,” he explained. “If they have an appropriate classroom size, then we’re setting those teachers and and those students up for success.”

He noted that on the workforce development side, the chamber is interested in creating a better connection between credentialing and certifications that can be done during high school which meet the needs of the business community.

“We fully support higher ed and four-year degrees, but not everybody needs a four-year degree and not every job requires or should require a four-year degree. We need to be educating our students before they graduate high school about those opportunities so that people know a four-year college (doesn’t have) to be the pathway for everyone to have a good-paying job,” he said.

He mentioned apprenticeship programs and other trade/skill development programs that can help create a pipeline of qualified talent for businesses that are in need of workers in a state like Utah, which has near-record low unemployment. He said education funding and workforce development will be keys for the state’s economic future.

Another priority would be to support the Utah Unified Transportation Plan, which would include visions for roadway expansion, multimodal public transportation growth and livable transit-oriented development communities.

“What the unified transportation plan does is say, ‘How do we take all those things and pull them all together in a coordinated way?’” Miller said. “From a business perspective, we were part of that process and we’ll certainly advocate towards funding for it.”

He noted that another significant challenge the state faces, particularly along the Wasatch Front, is skyrocketing housing prices.

“Like anything else in a free market that is a result of supply and demand, right now we have much higher demand than we have supply,” Miller said. “We have at last estimated about 50,000 more households than we have homes for those households to live in. The prices for housing at all levels, at all pricing levels, and rental and for purchase, are going through the roof.”

He said the chamber will call on lawmakers and civic leaders to help address the issue in an effort to prevent the Wasatch Front from becoming like Silicon Valley, San Francisco or Seattle. The organization will continue to support the efforts of the Housing Gap Coalition — a business-led group formed in June 2018 to target the area’s growing affordable housing crisis.

“This year, our priority will be focused at the legislature on providing some technical assistance,” he said. “We’re going to be advocating at the legislature this year to provide some funding to give technical assistance to local communities as well as incentive programs for more mixed-use development.”

He said the third component besides the technical assistance and the incentive programs is to support the governor’s budget proposal to provide housing assistance for Utahns who qualify as very low income.

Miller said the chamber will also push to improve air quality along the Wasatch Front and work to address the ongoing issue of the gender wage gap.

“This is another priority for us. It’s important for a lot of reasons — ethical moral reasons, which we don’t discount at all, but it’s important from a workforce development and diversity (perspective),” he said. “Ultimately, we know that more workforce development and more diversity will make our businesses more successful.”

Lastly, he said the organization will support efforts to bolster health care for Utahns, including for mental and behavioral health.

“It’s a major concern to any individual, any family and certainly to businesses that we have health care that’s affordable (and) that’s accessible,” Miller said. “The good news in Utah, through our health care providers, is that we have some of the best quality in the country and some of the lowest prices. Now we just need to make sure that we’re keeping it that way.”

“We’re trying to inform and to educate members of our chamber and our business community of what do you need to be doing from a healthcare standpoint, both from the side of benefits that you’re providing, as well as just having a healthy workforce that is able to function and help you to be a successful business,” he added.