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USTAR-supported technologies help pave way for STEM workforce development

Utah’s economy is facing a dichotomy. While the state is leading the nation in job growth, it is also facing a shortage of skilled laborers.

The gap between job growth and labor, particular in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) poses a key challenge for Utah. If companies are not able to find enough local, skilled talent, then Utah may lose some of its competitive advantage in incentivizing companies to expand or locate in Utah in the future.

“Our tech industry is growing faster than any other state in the nation,” said Derek Miller, President and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber, who also is a member of the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) Governing Authority. “That’s the good news. But if we want to continue to have a sustainable knowledge-based, innovation economy we’re going to need to continue to focus on workforce development.”

To help address this challenge, a key part of USTAR’s mission is to promote the continued growth and diversification of Utah’s economy. The organization’s programs build STEM workforce development opportunities through technologies and companies supported by USTAR.

A report released by the Department of Workforce Services on difficult-to-fill jobs also found that on average, STEM jobs in Utah were much more difficult to fill, in terms of the number of days these positions went unfilled.  Especially in Utah’s deep technology and science sectors, such as life sciences, these jobs also require relevant, applied research experience. USTAR’s programs provide postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduate students the opportunity to work in technology commercialization projects while enrolled at a Utah public or not-for-profit higher education institution.

In 2017 and 2018 alone, technology commercialization projects funded by USTAR grants provided workforce development opportunities for more than 360 students. Additionally, there was a seven percent increase in the number of students trained from 2017 to 2018.

For example, a recent graduate from the University of Utah was able to join the team of OxEonEnergy—a USTAR Technology Acceleration Program (TAP) grant recipient—this past May after interning with the early-stage company. Additionally, six Brigham Young University graduates found opportunities in the oil and gas industry working on a USTAR-funded project in the same field.

Outside of technology commercialization projects funded in part through USTAR, the organization also provides additional STEM workforce development opportunities at the BioInnovations Gateway (BiG).

A partnership between USTAR and the Granite School District, BiG combines business incubation with workforce development. The life sciences incubator provides startup companies with a competitive edge by providing access to equipment, laboratory facilities and technical resources, lowering overall capital costs associated with the early stages of development. The incubator, which is currently at 100 percent capacity, also provides opportunities for students to develop their biotechnology workforce skills. Companies located at the incubator offer students training opportunities in research, product development, validation and preclinical testing.

Science and technology industry experts stress the importance of continuing to support programs that drive long-term science and engineering workforce growth in the state.

“For future success in the innovation economy, Utah must continue to make long-term investments in its competitiveness,” said Dan Berglund, president and CEO of SSTI. “This includes continued support of USTAR’s programs, strengthening the capacity to conduct R&D at its universities and businesses, working to convert this research into new jobs and businesses, and supporting entrepreneurship in high-growth industries through training and access to capital.”

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