By Brice Wallace
Clint Betts, the executive director and editor-in-chief of Silicon Slopes, acknowledges that while that organization’s name has traditionally been identified with the area from Provo to Ogden, “if you ask me, I think it should be all of Utah.”
With that thinking in mind, panelists at a recent Silicon Slopes gathering suggested that growing technology companies look to rural Utah to solve their workforce needs. A pair of panelists from Carbon County said that while some skills development is necessary, that county offers solutions that are not available along the Wasatch Front.
Carbon County commissioner Jake Mellor said people there have always been willing to awaken early to spend long hours doing hard work, “and not everybody everywhere is able to do that.”
“What I’m getting at is, I’m not saying that in other locations you’ve got a bad work ethic. It’s just that the level of responsibility, the timeliness and the willingness to go the extra mile at work without the expectations of overtime or without the expectations of all the other perks and benefits other people have for putting in the extra effort, we have that in rural Utah. It’s a ready, willing, honest workforce,” he said.
“The workforce is there. Now, the next step is connecting them to the opportunity.”
Tami Ursenbach, Carbon County economic development director, said Carbon County has had “no vision beyond energy” but needs to diversify its economy. “These people have strong work ethics,” she said of county residents. “They are so hungry for a good, strong job that they put in extra hours without pay. … But we’ve got to look outside the box.”
Noting that “you can only have so many call center people,” Ursenbach said that about half of Carbon County’s residents, or about 3,700, leave the county on a daily, weekly or monthly basis in order to work. That could change with more tech jobs, she said.
“Those people want to work in our county. They want to stay home and work. That’s huge for our county, to be able to bring those jobs. And IT jobs where they can work at home or they can work at a center nearby are perfect for the county and perfect for our workforce,” Ursenbach said.
Mellor said a “three-legged barstool” — consisting of the right people, the right opportunities and the right training and education that is applicable to the opportunities — can equal prosperity. Rural Utah has the real estate, the workforce and fiber optic networks that can help tech companies looking for sites that can accommodate their growth.
“I just want everyone to know that in rural Utah, we have the three-legged barstool, and people can have prosperity. It’s very exciting,” he said. “Even though we have the population on the Wasatch Front, we still have talents and skills and ready-and-willing bodies in rural Utah that can help meet that demand and that need that the jobs coming to Utah are giving us.”
Tami Goetz, executive director of the Utah STEM Action Center, said a symbol of tech company desperation for skilled workers came in the form of a comment for a large tech company executive, whom she did not name: “I don’t care if they work on a houseboat on Lake Powell; we’ll hire them.”
Much of the panel discussion focused on training of Utahns to meet tech employers’ needs for skilled workers. Betts said that recruiting people to Utah is a short-term solution, but bolstering education and training is the only real long-term solution.
Mellor said the state and industry are trying to find ways to fill “the need between what the employer is looking for and needing and what employment is needing, as well as the training and education to get there.”
Panelists stressed that talent advancement within companies is necessary, that tech education needs to move toward applying what has been learned rather than “just using tools,” and that stackable degrees and a lifelong learning must get more emphasis.
Cydni Tetro, executive director of the Women Tech Council, said today’s workers need both hard skills and soft skills. “If I can find people who are amazing at problem-solving and who are creative at those solutions and can get things done, I can teach a lot of skills,” she said.
Ursenbach said today’s young people could be left behind without adequate technology skills. “If we don’t train our kids now, they won’t be able to do any of the work [in the future] because everything that’s happening now is going to be technical of some sort,” she said.
Despite the issues that cropped up during the panel discussion, Betts put a positive spin on the situation.
“These are great problems to have,” he said. “A lot of startup communities across the country would love to be focused on these problems, right? So, there is such a thing as success failures, right? It’s just a matter of tackling them the right way.”