October 8, 2013

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If You Build It

EDCU’s Jeff Edwards Talks Economic Development

Interviewed by Sarah Ryther Francom

October 8, 2013


Utah has many strengths and a promising economic future. But there are still many weaknesses to work on and opportunities to seize to keep the economy moving forward. Here’s what Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, thinks Utah needs today to ensure the state’s vibrancy tomorrow.

What are some of Utah’s key economic strengths?

We’re lucky to be having such a strong recovery from the recession. We’re unique that the unemployment rate never gets as high as the national growth rates, but we also don’t get as low. The good news is unemployment is heading in the right direction. We’re way ahead of the national average. And it appears to us that the economy is heating up pretty dramatically. The challenge to that is unemployment keeps going lower—we’re going to be back where we were in 2006 and 2007 and having to scramble for workers. It’s that boom and bust cycle that we’re coming back on.

From tech to manufacturing, many employers are struggling to find skilled workers. Talk about our workforce needs.

The IT space has some serious workforce issues. Especially advanced skilled IT and engineering-type jobs. Those workers are very hard to come by and when you can find them, they’re expensive. The only consolation is we can look at other markets and other states have the same problem. Unless you’re in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to find those kinds of employees. Other areas, like manufacturing, are scrambling quite a bit too.

Where does the problem stem from? Is there a misalignment between education and workforce needs?

We’ve got to get our arms around education. We need to solve that problem. People view it as a hopeless thing, but it’s very doable if we’ve got the political will to make it happen. We’ve got to figure out how to better align the public higher education system and the public school system with what the workforce demands really are. The term we hear a lot in the legislature is workforce alignment. How do we create graduates that have the right skill sets to match the jobs in the market?

I feel like there’s a lot of effort going into that finally with the legislature and Prosperity 2020, which is taking [education and workforce alignment] head on and saying that we’ve got to solve this problem and can’t keep putting it off.

Another area that’s going to make a difference is in the STEM area. The state government put forward some serious money to put into the STEM program. Now it’s the challenge of implementing that across the schools. There’s a long lead time, it’s going to take years to see it work in the systems, but it’s a positive nonetheless.

Looking ahead, what are some of the state’s most promising industries—industries poised to grow?

We’re going to see some real success in the aerospace market. Utah’s had an aerospace market for a long time—the likes of ATK and Boeing have been here for many years, and they just keep growing and adding jobs.

The unmanned aircraft business, depending on what the FAA decides, might also see some growth. Utah may find itself as one of the designated test sites for unmanned aircraft—I think there is a good chance we’ll be one of those sites.

Another area is life sciences. Medical device businesses have been here for decades and have grown very well. The University of Utah continues to be the driver behind that with the innovation that goes on there. And Utah State has some new life science stuff that they’re doing as well.

Is corporate interest in moving to or expanding in Utah increasing, decreasing or holding steady?

Utah is on the map. We’re getting projects, the size of which we’ve never seen before. We’re getting asked to take part of big projects that just a couple of years ago we wouldn’t have even been asked. Some of them are way over our heads and we’re swimming in the deep end with the big boys. But that’s cool. The fact that we’re getting asked to take part in these large-scale projects is really good. Just to be included in the same conversations as other cities, like Dallas or Chicago, is really quite interesting. So, it’s growing.

What are some of the obstacles you encounter when trying to recruit companies or individuals to the state?

The liquor question comes up in an individual recruiting effort. If you’re recruiting someone here, it will come up somewhere in the conversation. It also comes up in the retail space. Restaurants and hotels track it very carefully. Beyond that, it’s a general perception that people have. But it is a lower-level question—[companies] are more concerned about whether they get the workers needed and infrastructure, tech support and land sites. But the liquor question comes up in recruiting employees. Are they going to be successful at bringing key people and managers from San Jose and convince them to move to Utah? It’s a quality of life question that people have.

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