In early September, Gov. Gary R. Herbert travelled to Clearfield to make a significant economic announcement: Alliant Techsystems Inc (ATK) Aerospace Systems had chosen the northern Utah community to locate its new manufacturing facility for commercial airframes and engine structures. The new plant is expected to create up to 800 new highly paid jobs over the next 20 years.
Aerospace is big business in Utah. The aerospace and defense industry employs some 42,000 workers and generates an economic impact of $5.4 billion—and that’s why state leaders are focusing on keeping the industry healthy and strong. The age of letting Utah’s aerospace and defense industry rise and fall with the economic and political winds is long gone.
A bold, new initiative called the Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership (UCAP) is aligning business, government and education leaders in collaborative ways to ignite growth in aerospace and defense as well as other key Utah industries.
How? By aligning the degree programs and certifications of Utah’s colleges and universities with the workforce needs of the state’s key industries.
“We are creating the workforce of tomorrow today,” says Spencer Eccles, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED).
UCAP was formally launched by Gov. Gary Herbert in his State of the State address in January. The partnership involves three initial pilot projects: aerospace and defense convened by Weber State University, energy convened by Salt Lake Community College, and digital media convened by Utah Valley University.
UCAP is facilitated by a partnership between the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE), the Department of Workforce Services (DWS), GOED and the Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR).
To kick off UCAP’s aerospace and defense pilot, Weber State University (WSU) President Ann Millner convened a group of education, business and government leaders. After more than six months of intensive work, Millner and her group—which includes representatives from the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill Air Force Base, Boeing, L-3 Communications, ATK, Northrop Grumman, USHE, GOED and many others—have prepared a strategy for accelerating the growth of Utah’s vital aerospace and defense industry.
“Our purpose was to listen to representatives from the aerospace and defense cluster, to better understand their needs from a workforce perspective. Through this process, we identified three key areas of opportunity to position the state to compete and grow the aerospace and defense companies we have, while attracting new companies involved in those three growth areas,” says Millner.
“The first area of opportunity is to expand the maintenance and repair workload at Hill Air Force Base and the contractors that support Hill’s mission. The second opportunity lies in the expansion of unmanned aerial vehicle project work at Hill and at the Tooele Army Depot. The third area involves better supporting the space initiatives developed at ATK and the Space Dynamics Laboratory at Utah State University in Logan,” she explains.
WSU is now in the process of embedding an aerospace and defense emphasis in its MBA program for students working in that sector. The school is also developing a new post-baccalaureate Defense Contract Management certificate and is offering a new electronics engineering degree. These awards were developed in response to demand from the defense and aerospace sector along with other industries.
The university will offer classes in the evenings to accommodate students in the labor force, individuals employed with defense and aerospace companies in northern Utah, as well as enlisted and civilian employees at Hill.
Furthermore, with the support of a technology commercialization grant from USTAR, WSU is also focusing program development efforts around specific technologies that support the aerospace and defense cluster. In one project, students and faculty are helping a Utah company develop the prototype for an autonomous surveillance vehicle. In another project, faculty members are working with a local company to develop a prototype hovercraft that would be used as a target on the Utah Test and Training Range.
“Our goal is to engage students as much as possible, to prepare them to work with aerospace and defense companies in Utah,” says Millner. “I believe this cluster acceleration partnership is crucial to grow Utah’s economy and expand the number of high wage jobs in the state.”
A Roadmap for Growth
Unlocking the power of Utah’s colleges and universities in support of economic development makes good sense, says Gary Harter, managing director of business creation for GOED. Harter works closely with leaders in the aerospace and defense industry and says the industry not only has excellent potential for growth, but also for high wages. In fact, the average monthly wage in the aerospace industry is 160 percent of the state average, while the average monthly wage in defense-related jobs is 180 percent of the state average.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill and one of the key industry participants in UCAP’s aerospace and defense pilot project, says UCAP is a great foundation, an opportunity to create a road map for anticipated growth areas at the base, such as when new systems come online, in the areas of composites and composites repair, or unmanned aerial vehicle projects at Hill.
“Weber State University’s new programs will be crucial to remedy any shortfalls in training and education within the workforce and help posture us for success, especially in the growth areas we see in the future, such as electronics engineering. This will benefit all of Utah’s businesses in aerospace and defense,” he says. “We are not an island up here.”
Johnson says the UCAP team was a “great cross section of smart, forward-thinking people, and it was a fulfilling opportunity to engage in formal, constructive dialogue with those involved. I think it was very effective, especially in laying out a plan of action and lighting a fire under all of us.”
The aerospace and defense pilot project led by Millner is a model that can be replicated again and again, says Cameron Martin, associate commissioner for economic development and planning for USHE.
“Our institutions of higher education have staying power and a massive amount of infrastructure that can be used to benefit business. Through UCAP we will show that we care about businesses and are serious about supporting and sustaining them,” Martin explains. “It is a rising tide that will raise all ships.”
A Strategic Advantage
Eccles says companies that are looking to locate their operations in Utah want to know the state has the workforce to support them. “By demonstrating that we have the critical mass—that we can provide the workforce that is needed, at the level it is needed—provides a strategic advantage for Utah as we recruit businesses to the state.”
UCAP is helping to create unprecedented partnerships and critical relationships between industry and education, says Eccles. “When everyone is thinking about economic development—government, industry and higher education—it demonstrates a lot of nimbleness. Now that we have a strategy in place for the aerospace and defense cluster, our next step is to execute the strategy by implementing the steps that have been identified by Millner and her team,” he explains.
On a larger scale, Eccles says UCAP is not just trying to develop one program for one cluster, but a template that can be used to grow all of the state’s strategic clusters.
The aerospace and defense industry is a great place to start. As Governor Herbert envisioned in his State of the State address: “By focusing on workforce needs in this area, we will develop the talent and innovation necessary to become the premier player in the aerospace industry. As this happens, Utah becomes more than a place companies would like to be, it becomes a place they need to be.”