Brice Wallace 

Industries’ need for skilled workers in Utah is well-known. The solution is less so, but it exists.

Potential skilled workers are out there, but they need to better understand the opportunities available to them, according to a panel at a recent industry summit. Lots of people are simply unaware of training and education that can put them on a path to a solid career.

They include members of underserved populations, high school graduates who want to get straight into a job but lack the needed skills and people who already work but not in a career that could lead to a better life.

Getting that wide range of people into training and education can help both them and the companies that need them, and industry can work with educators to get them going, speakers said.

“We have pockets of potential students,” Vic Hockett, director of the state’s Talent Ready Utah program, said at a workforce panel during the 2021 Renalytix BioHive Summit, presented by BioHive and BioUtah.

“We have untapped resources of human capital throughout the state that currently aren’t included in that success story of Utah. We have a lot of underserved populations, underrepresented populations, that we want to get into that education pipeline. We want to help get these folks into four- and five-star job occupations, into sustainable living wages, and in order to do that, these partnerships that we have with industry, this collaboration, there’s never been a greater need for this sort of collaboration and work and looking for solutions to expand these pipelines.”

Jenni Abbott, assistant vice president of workforce training and education at Salt Lake Community College, said getting all types of people involved can help address the state’s worker shortage. The number of manufacturing job postings increased 51 percent from the summer of 2020 and the summer of 2021 in Salt Lake County alone, she said, and the number of Utahns over age 25 attending college has tripled over the past decade.

“So there are more students who are coming in their late 20s or 30s who have not found their career path and are looking for training so that they can get into jobs where they really need to be able to find something,” she said.

The need is most acute in a “middle-skills” level, between jobs that require a high school education and those that need a bachelor’s degree, she said.

“That’s where the gap in workers is right now in Utah, in those middle-skills jobs. … That’s an important gap and that’s where I think training comes in so critically,” Abbott said.

But that group is part of a “variety of audiences” that can benefit from collaborations among industry, education and government, according to the panelists.

Some high school grads wanting to work right now nonetheless need training before entering the workforce. Adults “who didn’t figure it out or didn’t try what they really wanted” often are working two to three jobs to make ends meet, Abbott said.

“When we can find people like that and say, ‘Let us help you find a career that’s long term, a single job where you can grow,’ that changes their lives, that changes an entire community because they have an opportunity,” she said.

People who work to match talent with industry needs face many challenges, including understanding that required skills change as technology advances, to the point that sometimes people are training for careers that don’t even exist yet.

“Things are so dynamic now with how the economy is evolving and how technology is evolving, that our pipeline needs to include opportunities for a first job [and] your next job,” said Yvette Woodland, economic service area director at the Utah Department of Workforce Services. “We know that labor availability is a huge concern, and the staffing shortages and competition for tech talent is just huge.”

Employers and trade organizations can get involved in a variety of ways, including job-shadowing, mentorships, internships, apprenticeships and sometimes simply basic exposure to “what jobs looked like.” Work-based learning — an “earn while you learn” model — has added advantages, including helping a new worker discover a particular company’s culture and advancement opportunities.

Employers offering good training for both new and existing employees “creates a loyalty to the company,” Abbott said. “And I’m sure as employers know, it’s not just about getting talent. It’s also about keeping talent. That’s one of the biggest challenges there is right now.”

Panelists said getting the word out about skills-building opportunities is a challenge. Hockett said organizations working with education, industry and government are “trying to reach students early and often.”

“I think something that is important that we teach people is, not every great job requires a bachelor’s degree, and what it means to be ‘educated’ is different for every single person and ‘success’ means very different things to everybody, and that is perfectly OK,” Hockett said.

“Our job is to make sure those educational opportunities are available to all students and bring in everyone into the Utah success story.”

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