HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Utah companies — including the state’s largest single-site employer, Hill Air Force Base — are having a hard time finding qualified employees to fill open positions.
Those are the findings in “Is This the Place? A Survey of Utah Employers,” a new report from The Utah Foundation that found the state’s employers are being plagued by an inability to find qualified workers for open positions. And perhaps not coincidentally, it found state wages offered for skilled positions are often below national median levels.
The UF, a nonpartisan research organization, surveyed more than 150 businesses across the state, most of which have headquarters along the Wasatch Front.
“We’ve been hearing about some of these problems, namely not being able to find qualified workers, from a variety of different sources,” said Utah Foundation research analyst Christopher Collard. “So we decided to look at the data.”
Based on several questions, Collard said, 71 percent of companies surveyed reported at least some level of difficulty finding enough qualified employees, 32 percent of them indicating the shortage as the greatest limiting factor in growth.
Collard said there are many factors that likely contribute to the dilemma, but a few stand out.
Citing a recent report from the Department of Workforce Services, Collard said 68 percent of Utah companies currently offer below-median wages for jobs the DWS defines as “difficult-to-fill positions.” More than 38 percent of Utah companies offer wages below the 25th percentile, which means it’s reasonable to assume the shortage of skilled employees doesn’t lie exclusively with the qualifications of Utah’s workforce.
“Wages are always going to be part of the discussion when you talk about being able to find qualified employees,” Collard said. “If a person can make a lot more money doing the same job in another state, that’s enticing.”
However, Collard said the most recent data indicates Utah wages are going up.
Another major contributing factor to staffing positions with qualified personnel, Collard says, is that at around 3.5 percent, Utah has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
“With one of the lowest unemployment levels in the nation, it should be no surprise that workers are hard to find,” the report says.
The report indicates employers have the hardest time finding employees with master’s degrees, followed by those with vocational degrees — a point Collard described as somewhat surprising and said is probably industry specific.
One survey respondent told the foundation that the manufacturing industry is “facing a crisis” in finding skilled workers, saying that many workers within the industry are older and close to retirement.
“As they phase out of the workforce, younger individuals do not seem interested in replacing them,” the report said.
The same things can be said for the state’s military behemoth, Hill Air Force Base.
According to Col. Scott Nowlin, deputy director of engineering and technical management at Hill, the supply of workers isn’t currently meeting the base’s demand.
“At the moment, there are simply not enough graduates to meet Hill needs for composites technicians, sheet metal mechanics, precision painters, nondestructive testers, etc.,” Nowlin said. “This in turn drives a workforce shortage across the state’s Aerospace and Defense cluster.”
Nowlin said base leaders acknowledge that technology and work processes will continue to change, but “these skill areas will evolve and will continue to be in demand for the foreseeable future.”
The colonel says the base’s F-35, F-22 and intercontinental maintenance workloads will drive much of the demand.
“Because very little of our existing work with the earlier generations of aircraft is being phased out, we will be hiring large numbers of new employees for the next 10 to 15 years,” Nowlin said. “Many of these jobs will be for industrial workers and technicians.”
Nowlin said state initiatives like the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education program and the Utah Aerospace Pathways program, which allows high school students to train and certify in aerospace manufacturing through concurrent enrollment, should help produce qualified candidates in the future.
“We’re encouraging the next generation of workers to embrace jobs in STEM-related industries,” Nowlin said. “It truly is a national security issue for America.”
According to the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, there are more than 100 private aerospace firms in Utah, employing approximately 20,000 people. Hill employs more than 20,000 military service members, civilians and contractors.