SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to high-tech job creation, Utah is crushing the competition on a scale that's outsized for a state with a population that only recently broke the 3 million mark, but along with this success has come an enormous challenge — keeping up with it.
Despite Utah's eight state colleges and universities graduating almost 3,000 computer science and engineering specialists last year, the volume isn't even close to feeding the voracious appetite of the state's technology sector, according to industry experts.
Last year, Richard Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council, hosted a gathering of state legislators, Utah university presidents and tech CEOs and a simple question was raised — how many more grads did the industry need? Their answer — 5,000.
"It's become the industry's No. 1 issue," said Nelson. "We're exporting thousands of jobs out of state because we're not providing the tech grads and other tech talent that our local companies are looking for."
Now, thanks to some fiscal help from the Utah Legislature in the recently concluded session, UTC hopes to up the ante on the state's long-running Engineering Initiative and continue to raise the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics coming out of the state's post-secondary schools.
The initiative's $15 million annual funding received a $4 million ongoing increase from state legislators this year. Thanks to mandatory fund-matching, Nelson said the group can leverage a net $38 million to address unmet demand and help connect Utah tech grads with Utah tech jobs.
At the University of Utah's College of Engineering, Dean Richard Brown recalls the launch of the state's Engineering Initiative by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt.
"Back in 2000, then-Gov. Leavitt became concerned about a decline in Utah's average wages," said Brown. "Through talking to industry people, and spending time in Silicon Valley, he heard the same thing over and over — if you're serious about improving wages and job opportunities, do something about engineering education."
Leavitt didn't waste any time taking the advice to heart and taking action. The next year, the Utah Legislature passed the initiative, with the explicit goal of doubling the number of graduates in computer science and engineering fields.
"The year before the initiative, we graduated 366 students from our College of Engineering," said Brown. "This past year, it was 902."
While the gap between supply and demand seems vast, even with the increasing number of graduates, Brown said the state's commitment to growing the funding stream has made a significant difference.
"Two years ago, the Legislature boosted funding for the initiative by $3 million, with a promise that the number of graduates could be increased by 250," Brown said. "But the capacity improvements ended up adding 657.
"The Engineering Initiative has been a huge, positive investment," he said.
Independent analysis of the economic impacts of tech jobs seems to bear that out, as well.
A 2016 Brookings Institution study noted that tech jobs not only pay more (almost double the average of other sectors) but also have a much larger than average "multiplier" economic impact. Technology positions, on average, create 2.2 additional jobs, thanks in part to advanced industries typically purchasing about $236,000 in goods in services for each employee, versus the average of $67,000 spent by other types of businesses.
Nelson said this layered economic effect underscores the long-term value of the state's investment in STEM graduates.
"In Utah, technology employment represents about 10 percent of our total workforce right now," Nelson said. "But, if you start counting up the number of other jobs being supported by these industries, and the tech jobs, like IT professionals at our other companies, you can see that it is likely more like 20-25 percent of our workforce."
Nelson added that the work to create more Utah tech grads goes beyond addressing capacity issues at the state's colleges and universities.
"Really, it's a K-20 effort," said Nelson.
UTC has helped launch the STEM Action Center Utah, a program aimed at boosting STEM education for elementary students, works with Junior Achievement of Utah, which builds partnerships between educators, businesses and students, and is currently working on a program aimed at Utah's Title 1 schools.