Utah leads in defense, aerospace jobs – thanks to STEM

With tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars at stake, it’s hard to overstate the importance of science, technology, engineering and math jobs in Utah. 

And at the moment, the state has an upper hand in attracting and keeping high-wage defense and aerospace industry jobs, according to Ben Hart, managing director for Business Services in the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. 

But that isn’t a reason to get complacent.

One reason Utah is a big player in the defense and aerospace industries is the amount of training and experience Utahns have in the field of composites, which is the science of combining materials to create a stronger, more durable and versatile one.

“When it comes to composite technology, the state has been involved with it for some time,” he said. “Because it’s such an important material now, other states will catch up if we don’t continue to innovate and outperform our peer states.”

Hart named Washington, Alabama, Texas and South Carolina as states to watch.

Composites are the “new steel,” Hart said, and are very important in the manufacture and maintenance of aircraft.

“Three very important airplanes are the F-35, the Boeing 787, and the Airbus A350 and A380,” he said, grouping the A350 and A380 as one aircraft. “Those three planes are having a tremendous impact on the state of Utah. Hill Air Force Base is getting ready to bed down their first F-35, Boeing is ramping up production of the 787 … and ATK is starting to do additional work on the A350.”

Hart’s comments were made in advance of his presentation at the Utah STEM Call-to-Action Forum, held Aug. 19-20 at Weber State University.

It’s not just the actual manufacture and maintenance of the planes, but the whole supply chain that’s benefiting the state’s economy.

“We count a little more than 1,100 aerospace businesses in the state,” said Hart, adding that the number of jobs in that cluster — and this is not counting jobs at Hill AFB — is around 34,000. “The average wage for these jobs is 198 percent of the average Utah wage, so these are high-paying jobs.”

The exact dollar impact of the aerospace and defense industries on Utah is not known. Mike Sullivan, communications director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the state is researching that and hopes to have a report available in about a year.

Hill AFB is responsible for approximately 20,000 jobs, Sullivan said, and research done by the base puts its economic impact on the state at $3.1 billion per year. Based on job numbers, he assumes the dollar amount added to the economy by non-base jobs will also be a multi-billion dollar figure.

The number one issue for defense and aerospace industry employers is the availability of qualified workers in Utah.

“What we see now, more and more, is the wide diversity in occupation requirements,” said Hart. “We see the need for everything from electrical engineers and mechanical engineers, right on down to technicians and those who have composite skills.”

Even more employees will be needed in the future. According to Hart, aircraft structure and systems assembly fields are expecting 9.5 percent annual growth over the next 10 years.

“That’s unheard of,” he said. “The historical state average is around 3.2 percent.”

Software developers who can work in aviation will also be needed, he said, estimating growth of that field at 4.1 percent.

Part of the forum’s aim is to develop STEM focus for elementary and secondary schools. As far as postsecondary options go, the list is growing.

WSU added an engineering program a few years ago and is ramping up its manufacturing program, and the Utah State Board of Regents recently approved a new Master of Science in Computer Engineering degree at the school. Ogden-Weber Applied Tech College and Davis Applied Technology College are training people to work in composites, and the University of Utah and Brigham Young University have composites programs that are incredibly important in terms of research and workforce development, Hart said. At Utah State University, students working with the Space Dynamics Laboratory are also engaged in research.

Another STEM focus in which Utah has the chance to excel is in working with unmanned vehicles, said Hart, adding that there are already companies in the state involved in frame production and internal systems for the vehicles.

“We can’t lose focus,” Hart said. “We really do have to concentrate on the longterm pipeline, and STEM programs are critical.”

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