Utah led the country in population growth over the past decade. Its population expanded from 2.8 million to 3.3 million residents — an impressive 18.4% jump, with growth exceeding Texas, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and many other states known for attractive employment opportunities and lifestyles.
Utah’s population also has the nation’s youngest median age at 30.5 years and its highest average household size of 3.19.
As impressive as Utah’s past decade has been, many signs indicate Utah’s best days are to come. But growth brings challenges. We should not praise growth for growth’s sake. We should seek sustainable growth, where the state’s infrastructure, schools, environment and housing can support its swelling population. We believe the next decade holds even greater possibilities and promise for the Beehive State if we focus on things that matter most. We have listed 10 things Utah can do to help ensure and sustain its growth for years to come.
1. Foster a stable and business-friendly environment that attracts out-of-state employers. Excessive zoning laws and regulations have prompted West Coast-based companies to explore growth elsewhere. Utah should compete aggressively for coastal employers’ growth expansion.
Consequently, Utah needs to think creatively about how to promote attractive real estate and tax options for employers that also protect our residents’ collective best interests. Employers not only care about zoning laws and regulations, but they also care about access to labor supply, suppliers and clients.
Labor supply drives employer location choice — businesses do not locate in Silicon Valley or New York City because of the low costs of living. Those markets supply attractive labor talent. Utah’s young and educated millennial and Gen Z labor force will play to its favor. It is in Utah’s interest to make this state attractive for them to stay.
2. Develop a true high-tech industry cluster. Interconnected clusters of businesses in similar fields help enhance learning and promote growth and job creation. North Carolina’s Research Triangle is a family-friendly market situated among large research universities — a setting not dissimilar from the Salt Lake and Utah valleys.
That region has built a clean-tech cluster backed by local businesses, government, academic and nonprofit leaders. They aspire to accelerate clean-tech innovation and grow the clean-tech economy. In Utah, leading health care, high-tech, and fintech businesses are appearing in spades. Fintech has thrived in Utah partly because of the strong supply of entrepreneurs and investment funds.
Fintech will be particularly important for the post-pandemic recovery and consumers’ access to capital needs. Utah’s policymakers — including those at Utah’s Office of Economic Development and Chamber of Commerce — should actively support Salt Lake’s effort to become one of the premier tech clusters in the U.S.
As our public and private sector leaders in Utah promote conferences and degree programs in tech and health care, we believe that Utah can cement a differentiated and sustained competitive advantage that will create increased economic activity and local job growth.
3. Build adequate transportation and infrastructure. Livability within the Wasatch requires managing traffic gridlock and congestion. Adequate infrastructure will support more economic productivity, greater tourism and additional conventions that bring needed business activity.
More importantly, infrastructure investments will improve quality of life. We can and should apply market principles to address infrastructure needs within our public transportation system.
4. Ensure our universities continue to produce high numbers of relevant degrees. Employers eyeing investment in Utah want to know how many universities and colleges in our state produce relevant degrees and how many students receive those degrees. It is our hope that Utah’s major universities will find ways to maintain accreditations for key programs without compromising their mission and beliefs.
5. Invest heavily in K-12 computer science learning. Local investment in K-12 computer science programs will create a more attractive labor supply base for employers to locate here. Top-tier employers often ask what the K-12 learning environment looks like before hiring a cluster of talent in a market.
6. Incentivize clean air. Wildfire smoke filled our Wasatch region this past summer and is a growing problem. Low water levels in the Great Salt Lake can expose the lakebed and cause dust to fill the air we breathe. Ozone levels are concerning. Almost 50% of all pollution in the valley comes from our cars. We should encourage electric car charging networks and support Utah cities that want to achieve net-zero emissions.
These are efforts that our Utah delegation can and should play a prominent role in addressing. Rocky Mountain Power, through the support of Rep. Blake Moore, has secured federal funding to create connected communities in Utah through smart and energy effective buildings.
7. Invest in the arts. Millennials enjoy cultural amenities and are less prone to live in suburbs. Theaters, museums, live concerts and entertainment will attract more millennials to live and stay here. High-skilled workers like to live close to each other. Employers recognize this, and cities with strong investments in arts and entertainment hold a clear advantage.
8. Support nontraditional trade schools. Technical schools should be a celebrated career path for many young people who seek job security. There are nationwide shortages of approximately 80,000 diesel technicians and truck drivers. Labor shortages have hamstrung supply chain efficiencies.
We need more programs like the Utah Diesel Tech Pathways Program created in 2017 through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. This program facilitates student connections to employers within the diesel mechanic’s field. Promoting apprenticeship programs for graduating high schoolers among high-demand trades should continue to be a focus under current and future state leadership.
9. Ensure affordable housing. Utah’s growth and demand for housing has far outpaced available supply, driving up prices and locking out many otherwise home buyer hopefuls. Housing supply constraints limit upward economic mobility and can adversely impact well-being.
Utah incomes are not keeping pace with housing price increases. A 2018 Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute research brief argued that while government can do little to address rising labor and material costs, local governments can support affordable housing through inclusionary zoning ordinances, fee reductions for affordable housing, and new public/private funding models.
10. Embrace diversity. Utah should be a welcoming state to people of all backgrounds and races. The more racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse Utah becomes, the more comfortable other people and businesses will be in settling here. A diverse labor supply in Utah draws more employers and more employers will bring more labor supply diversity.
Diversity will also spur more worship, shopping, and lifestyle options for minority populations. Sustainable growth will come by warmly welcoming immigrants, refugees and other minorities into our population.
We believe that by effectively implementing these proposed suggestions Utah can serve as a national force for creative dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit. This path will fuel local job creation and quality of life. Utah deserves nothing less than a fiscally sound, socially enticing and sustainable plan from its elected leaders for the next decade.
Henry Eyring teaches at Utah State University and the London School of Economics. Douglas Hervey is a partner at Cicero Group and leads its health care and private equity practice.