OGDEN -- Lt. Gov. Greg Bell says Utah's economy is going great guns but faces a future of stunted job growth if it doesn't improve its education system.
The way to address the problem, he said Wednesday, is to get more students in smaller classes studying engineering. To pay for that, he said, the state needs to get hold of the oil and mineral potential on Utah's federal lands.
Bell spoke to several hundred Top of Utah business people at a conference hosted by Bank of Utah.
Bank Vice President Scott Parkinson said the bank set up the meeting to give business leaders a good summary of where the state is going and where they can fit in. The bank held a similar meeting last year.
Bell said Utah has come through the recession in better shape than most because of its high-quality transportation infrastructure and its excellent work force. Auto sales are up, home sales are up and the state's gross domestic product has increased.
What really appeals to business leaders is that the work force is young, well-educated and anxious to work. He recounted a conversation he had with one company president who said he liked Utah workers.
"He said they come to work and they stay," Bell said. "He said, 'Where I came from, they might come in. If they come in and go to lunch, they might not come back.' "
In a nod to a recent rating of Salt Lake City as the gayest city in the nation, he said companies want to locate to areas where their employees feel welcome. He said the founder of Adobe Systems, a software developer, told him "his people feel comfortable living here."
However, he said, that same executive warned that, "You guys aren't paying attention to your education system. If that goes, we're gone."
Bell said education is the key to Utah's future.
Utah's unemployment rate has dropped significantly. It was less than 3 percent in 2007, went up to 7.6 percent in 2009 and as of February was down to 5.7 percent.
"We've created 50,000 jobs in two years, so we're cooking," he said.
Unfortunately, that work force doesn't always fit.
He cited Level (3), a communications company with offices in Utah. Officials there have told him that even in the worst of the economic downturn, the company had 200 job vacancies it couldn't fill because Utah colleges weren't producing enough engineering graduates.
"We're not doing it right," he said. "I'm not criticizing art and math teachers. This is a societal problem."
Several factors keep Utah from expanding its educational system:
- Medicaid has grown from 6 percent of Utah's budget to 20 percent in 20 years.That's general fund money that Medicaid competes with higher education to get.
- Public education enrollment has increased from 481,000 in 2002 to 587,000 in 2011, adding $35 million a year to the education budget just to keep even.
- Utah families have, on average, one child more than the rest of the nation.
Then Bell showed what he called a "stunning" chart, a slide showing how median income for people with advanced college degrees is significantly higher, while the unemployment rate is largest among those with less education.
In 2010, weekly median income for people with Ph.D.s was more than $1,600 and the unemployment rate was 2.4 percent. People with less than a high school diploma earn $444 and had an unemployment rate of 14.9 percent.
The best bet to get more money, he said, is the drive begun in the Legislature to get state control of the land in the state now owned by the federal government.
Utah now collects no taxes on that land, but he admitted that "in reality, very little of the land would be sold" if Utah took it over.
Instead, Utah would be able to market mining of the coal, tar sands and even oil shale, which he said holds the potential of trillions of barrels of oil.
"There's always a question of whether the technology is there," he said, but 'we have an infinity of natural gas, we have all kinds of oil and coal in the Grand Staircase National Monument."