While unemployment numbers and a sluggish economy dominate the headlines, there is an underlying factor that rarely finds its way into the discussion: education. Utah businesses have jobs they can’t fill simply because they cannot find the workers they need to fill them.
The Salt Lake Chamber hosted a panel discussion with three local business leaders and a national expert. Their stories show how under achievement in education has significant negative impact on the economy.
Thatcher Pharmaceutical lost out on a $32 million contract to produce a product for a Fortune 500 company because the client didn’t have the confidence Thatcher could fill the jobs it would have to in order to make the product.
“We rely on strong technical resources,” said Tom Thatcher, president of Thatcher Pharmaceuticals. “We lost a huge contract because we were looked at as education poor. It cost us revenue and a profit of $13 million. It’s a costly impact.”
Cheryl Oldham, vice president and executive director of the Institute for a Competitive Workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says education is the product, and the schools produce the product. Businesses need to see each other as allies in a business-education alliance. Prosperity 2020 shows Utahns know the most important investment in an economy is education.
“It’s time to put the kids first, because our economy is dependent on it,” said Oldham. “If we want to stay first-class, we must invest more in education and have high expectations.”
ATK Aerospace Structures has struggled to find the employees with the specialized skills they need. ATK plans to hire 800 people over the next 20 years. These workers need to be trained to work the composites and multi-million dollar equipment.
“When we get new employees, they often don’t have the basic math skills they need,” said Joy de Lisser, vice president and general manager of ATK Aerospace Structures. “We have to do additional training to get them up to par.”
Salt Lake City based advertising firm Richter7 has recently had to fill three positions–approximately 10 percent of its workforce. One position, filled just this week, required searching outside of Utah. Using a professional recruiter cost Richter7 20 percent of the new hire’s first year salary, not to mention the relocation costs.
“It’s a big risk to bring in someone from out of state and whether we can meet their needs,” said Peggy Lander, a partner at Richter7. “University students come in all the time from Utah schools and they are woefully unprepared as seniors to meet our needs.”
Thatcher says it makes it much more difficult when you have to recruit outside the state. He says it affects a whole spectrum of people.
“It trickles down the line,” said Thatcher. “If businesses don’t want to come here, then you’re trying to ship product all over the country instead of staying here. We need to create an environment so people will relocate to Utah, not just do business in Utah.”
Each panelist was asked to point out one thing they would change to improve the quality of workers produced by the educational system.
“Schools need to make sure they are in tune with what our needs are now,” said Lander. “Students need to develop themselves and have a good core foundation from the school. We need to be ahead of the curve and too often we are five years behind the curve.”
De Lisser says students need to be more motivated to prepare for the workforce. “We need to get them passionate about what a career in aviation could be and how they could grow,” she said. “The passion and the understanding is what they need.”
“Businesses need to get much more involved with educators,” said Thatcher. “We have got to have an avenue for graduates so they have someplace to go, otherwise they will go somewhere else. They can’t just get their degree here and then go somewhere else to work. We need a business climate for the quality workforce to go to.”
Oldham says the high level of business engagement in education demonstrated in the Prosperity 2020 movement is a reason to be optimistic.
“All of you are so engaged on this and you have a powerful voice,” she said. “Your engagement is key on this. Remain passionate about this and you will get there.”