Home to “Silicon Slopes,” Utah has both uphill challenges and rising opportunities in technology and innovation, according to a tech executive panel gathered recently in Salt Lake City. Chief among the challenges is a longstanding one: finding skilled workers to fill the hundreds of job openings at Utah tech companies.
Home to “Silicon Slopes,” Utah has both uphill challenges and rising opportunities in technology and innovation, according to a tech executive panel gathered recently in Salt Lake City.
Chief among the challenges is a longstanding one: finding skilled workers to fill the hundreds of job openings at Utah tech companies.
“We all know this,” Fred Lampropoulos, chairman and chief executive officer at Merit Medical Systems Inc., said of the labor issue during tech and innovation discussion co-hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Advanced Technology & Innovation in collaboration with the Utah Technology Council. “We’re having a heck of a hard time hiring people.”
“We have a great talent pool of workers. We need more of them,” said Jonathan Johnson, chairman at Overstock.com, noting that “Utah has a great and thriving tech industry.”
“I look at the companies here and I know that we’ve hired their technologists and they’ve hired ours,” he said. “We need to do a better job of recruiting technologists to the state and home-growing technologists so that we can continue to flourish.”
Brad Daw, a software development computer scientist at Adobe, said Utah has “some fantastic universities” and a “great” workforce. “And one of the nice things about being in that workforce is I see how competitive it is and I see what great demand there is for computer engineers, computer scientists, different kinds of technologists,” he said.
Panelists and elected officials said the solution to the workforce problem lies in education and in sparking tech interest in youngsters as early as possible.
Gov. Gary Herbert said technology and innovation “is an area where we excel” but added that the state needs a labor force that companies will want to hire.
“We have a culture of productivity,” Herbert said. “People go to work. They put in an honest day’s effort for an honest day’s pay. Our workforce has been rated as the most productive in America today. We have to make sure they have the skillset necessary.”
The governor said efforts emphasizing engineering and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education are working.
“We are, in fact, going to have this skilled labor force that’s really going to line up with the demands of the marketplace, not only today but tomorrow,” Herbert said. “If we do all these things and continue them, we are setting ourselves on a course of economic stability and growth for the next generation.”
Johnson said Utah “can do so much better in education” and said the business community needs to be involved in that effort.
Daw, a member of the Utah House of Representatives, said the Legislature needs “to encourage, to promote, to fund” STEM education in high school and college. But he also stressed that the industry can light a spark in youngsters that can lead to careers in technology.
“Most of the engineers I know, they got excited about technology long before they went to college. They went to college already knowing what they wanted to do,” he said.
“If we can find people out there who are excited about technology, who can see the potential and benefits, who can think it’s really cool to make stuff and see how it works and get them excited about it, they’ll want to go to college, they’ll want to find ways to innovate and they’ll find ways to do it. I think it’s incumbent on us in the tech sector to find ways to get them excited, to help them see what’s going on, to see how interesting technology is.”
Vance Checketts, vice president of Utah operations at EMC Corp., with 1,200 Utah employees, challenged Utah to attain more tech patents but also to “do things differently.” Part of that, he said, lies in diversity. He called for diversity in gender, politics, the size of Utah companies, industry types and even politics — saying more Democrats “would be really healthy for us.” The more diverse a work group or community is, “the more innovation you’ll have, the faster you’ll solve problems, the more efficiently you’ll solve those problems and actually you’ll come up with better answers,” he said.
Not all of the discussion was about problems. U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz said the tech sector, “as much as anything, is driving the economy globally. We help lead that effort in the United States and certainly Utah has one of the best stories in the nation to tell and certainly probably the best growth opportunity.”
Randy Shumway, chief executive officer at Cicero, described Utah as “an incredible place to do business.”
“It is not without its challenges. … At the end of the day, I think we sometimes underestimate [ourselves], and I’m saying this as a bit of an outsider. We think we’re the underdog; I don’t think we are,” Shumway said. “The talent we have is successful. Yeah, it’s hard to get them and retain them but it’s not as hard as it is in the Bay Area, it’s not as hard as it is in New York City or in Boston, and we’ve got institutions of higher education that are absolutely exceptional in this state.”
Other positives in Utah include a culture of collaboration that Shumway said is “truly unique” and involves government, university and business leaders. “If I encounter a problem, there’s not anyone in this room that I can’t call and pick their brain and get help. I think that is unique.”
Lampropoulos noted Utahns’ language skills are a positive for a company like his, which gets half of its business from outside the U.S. Johnson said Utah’s workforce has character, knowledge and strong work ethic. Daw noted that Utah was the birthplace of Overstock, Merit Medical, Novell, Vivint, Xactware and Omniture.
“Obviously,” Daw said, “there’s something in the water here that causes people to want to innovate, to build a better mousetrap, to make something better, to make it interesting. And I think when the tech sector across the country sees it, they want to come here and they want to be a part of that.”
One thing Checketts does not want to be part of is another Silicon Valley, although he called “Silicon Slopes” “a good branding term.”
“The term ‘Silicon Slopes’ is a blessing and curse to us, because one of the reasons ‘why Utah?’ for EMC is we’re not Silicon Valley. And I don’t want to be Silicon Valley. And when this becomes Silicon Valley, I will probably have to move, and I lived in Silicon Valley for 10 years and I loved Silicon Valley.
“But that’s why I’m here and that’s why EMC is here, because it’s not Silicon Valley. So we have to be a little bit careful with that ‘Silicon Slopes’ term, [that] we don’t overuse that too much and just become Silicon Valley. I don’t want Silicon Valley wages, I don’t want Silicon Valley traffic, I don’t want Silicon Valley headaches and legislation and politics. I don’t want that.