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Low wages, skills gap key to finding qualified workers, study says


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SALT LAKE CITY — Low pay, job desirability, a skills gap and a tight employment market are contributing to a lack of qualified workers in the state workforce, a new report says.

Research from the Utah Foundation — a nonpartisan, independent policy organization — found that while the Beehive State boasts a jobless rate of 3.1 percent with annual job growth at 3.2 percent, Utah’s current labor force participation rate of 69 percent is still well below the 71 percent to 72 percent of the 1990s and early 2000s, said foundation research analyst Chris Collard, who authored "Help Wanted: Workforce Participation, Wages, Job Desirability and Skills Gap."

He said since the Great Recession, a significant number of Utahns have dropped out of the labor force compared to other states, falling to a low point of 67.7 percent in 2012.

"There is a larger amount of people who aren't even looking for a job," Collard said. "They could be students who are focusing on school or retirees, but it's happening across all age groups. So even among your working age population, there is still a substantial decrease in the number of people participating in Utah's workforce."

However, the level has climbed slightly to 68.7 percent as of 2016, the report notes.

Collard said a 2015 survey of Utah businesses found the majority were offering lower wages than they were already paying current employees in difficult-to-fill positions. Despite low unemployment for the past four years, wages have not increased as expected in a tight labor market, he said.

"Economic theory would suggest that if companies are having a hard time attracting employees, they would increase wages to entice people back into the workforce or convince people to jump to their industry from other industries," Collard said. "It's something we haven't seen yet."

He said the worker shortage trend may continue unless the issue is properly addressed.

The state's booming construction and technology sectors are among the industries claiming they are unable to find enough qualified workers, according to the report.

"It's an ideal circumstance for the workforce, but it's a challenge for a growing economy," said Scott Parson, president of Ogden-based general contractor Staker Parson. Some companies have developed their own in-house training programs, he noted, in an effort to help workers get the skills and certifications they need to fill open positions.


Besides construction, one 2015 report claimed the number of unfilled tech jobs to be between 10,000 and 15,000 positions. That report also stated that shortages exist for skilled manufacturing, teachers and nurses.

The Utah Foundation study says that while 63 percent of parents expect their children to earn college degrees, just 32 percent of Utahns do so historically and only 29 percent of jobs in 2020 will require one.

Governments, nonprofits, trade organizations, private companies and educational institutions are all working independently and collaboratively to address the skills gap through various means, the report states.

Currently, the state offers several Pathways programs designed to fast-track students into careers, including aerospace, diesel technicians, medical innovations — all designed specifically to address the industry demand for more qualified skilled labor.

"We're trying a variety of ways, working with businesses to 'custom fit' for their employees that need to enhance their skills, but we also have some certificate programs that are one year for students who want a more 'college experience' and maybe want to (parlay) that eventually into a degree," said Deneece Huftalin, president of Salt Lake Community College, which facilitates the Pathways programs.

"We're trying to be as responsive as we can in a variety of platforms."


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