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A Smart Economy

Building Utah's Talent Pipeline

By Candace M. Little

Utah is well known for its high number of school-aged children — about 31 percent of the State’s population is younger than 18 years old — but what’s less well known is the State’s laser-focus on the quality of the education those students receive and the success they will find as they become the workforce of the future. This is a State of innovation and communication, where government, business and education entities work together, where educators tailor their programs to meet the needs of growing business sectors and where business leaders are in classes themselves and helping educate behind the scenes.

Inside the Classroom

Governor Gary R. Herbert has a three-pronged education plan with the future in mind. Objective 1: Ensure our school children achieve reading proficiency by the end of third grade. Objective 2: Increase the number of high school students completing post-secondary programs. Objective 3: Align educational training to meet the workforce demands of the marketplace. “The message is clear,” says Governor Herbert. “Investing in our children today benefits all of us tomorrow.”

The State’s education system uses several methods to successfully accomplish its goals, catering to the different interests and needs of its students through more than 1,000 schools and with the help of more than 31,000 educators.

Utah has a wide range of pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade education institutions that are diverse and aimed straight toward higher education. In addition to the State’s exceptional public education system, Utah’s students have access to uniquely focused charter schools, science academies that stress problem-solving and deductive reasoning, private schools that prepare students for college years ahead of schedule, and specialized public schools equipped with state-of-the-art smart technology.

Some of these opportunities are also unique to Utah. William Nixon, CEO of iSchool, has been involved with many businesses and school systems across the U.S. He says Utah is becoming a high-tech mecca of the world, and that it’s well on its way to producing top-tier tech talent.

“You will not find a more visionary, more tech-savvy government anywhere, or a place better prepared to produce tech-savvy students,” he says. It started in the 1990s when then-Governor Michael O. Leavitt carried out a vision to install broadband internet throughout the entire State. This extensive infrastructure built a foundation for Utah schools to have wider access to advanced technology.

In 2012, Utah established a tech infrastructure in its school systems, becoming the first state in the world to launch a public Smart School. In fact, three Utah public schools were converted into Smart Schools, meaning that these schools are equipped with wireless infrastructure, flat-screen TVs with device-mirroring technology, MacBook computers in every classroom, and Apple iPads for every student and teacher.

Using smart technology as a learning tool is not only good for learning technology itself, but for learning in general, Nixon says. “This is a student-driven environment where teachers empower students to learn in the best way for them.” He says it also teaches children at an early age to hone their skills and discipline their use of smart technology.

Education that Goes Higher

Utah’s higher education institutions (10 public, four private and 10 other accredited institutions) are also excelling, and the State’s government is continuing to help bolster its talent pipeline. Governor Herbert is marshalling resources to advance the State’s goal that 66 percent of Utah adults will hold a post-secondary credential by 2020, with an emphasis in the first year toward graduating more students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields and health professions.

With support from the business community through organizations like Prosperity 2020, the State aims to make this goal a best practice for the future. But the higher education system has many best practices in action now.

For two years in a row, the University of Utah was ranked No. 1 at producing startup companies by the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM). In 2012, the U was ranked at No. 2, behind only the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The U also has an award-winning MBA program and recently introduced one of the nation’s most comprehensive project management training programs.

“Project management is one of the fastest-growing professions in the world, and as such, certified project managers are some of the most sought-after professionals in the world,” says Shelley Gabriel, education outreach manager for professional education at the U.

University of Utah President David W. Pershing says the U is helping its students tackle some of the world’s “thorniest and most persistent societal problems,” through its recently announced Center for Global Impact Investing. “The center will be a global leader in the creation of new knowledge of how to solve widespread structural problems, while training a generation of transformative leaders in social impact investment,” he says.

Brigham Young University, the State’s largest private university, also boasts many top rankings. The Wall Street Journal ranked its accounting program No. 1 in the nation and also reported that the university overall was ranked 11th by job recruiters. Its graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship programs and public relations program also rank in the top five. BYU is widely known for its animation program, which attracts faculty from companies like Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and Warner Bros.

BYU has a unique student population, with 30,000 undergraduates from all 50 states and 110 countries. Nearly 80 percent of its students speak a second language, with 111 languages spoken on campus. BYU’s most recent incoming class averaged a score of 28.4 on the ACT.

Utah State University, located in Logan, has a long history of best practices. It is home to the second-oldest undergraduate research program in the nation, has provided distance education for more than 110 years and is home to the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business, which is the West’s oldest continuously operating business college. The business school just announced that it is one of 22 schools in the United States recognized by the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute for its work in preparing students to earn the Chartered Financial Analyst designation, which has become the most recognized investment credential in the world.

USU ranked as the No.1 public university in the West (and top five in the nation) for lowest tuition on Forbes’ 2011 list of America’s Best College Buys. It’s not hard to see why it’s a good deal when the university has, among other things, sent more student experiments into space than any other university in the world, its student admittance rate to medical and dental schools is 30 percent above national average, and its College of Education and Human Services ranked No. 3 in the nation for funded research by U.S. News & World Report.

USTAR Up Close

Another example of a stellar state/education/business partnership is the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative (USTAR). Since 2006, it has attracted top researchers and students to Utah’s institutions of higher learning and education, garnered federal grant money and spun out tech companies — all in an effort to boost Utah’s economy.

USTAR Executive Director Ted McAleer says there’s a reason why Utah was one of the only economies to increase productivity during the recent recession. “It’s because we were willing to invest during the economic downturn,” McAleer says. In the last three years, USTAR used a $3.4 million grant to produce $20.3 million in private financing, 98 prototypes, 176 jobs and 30 new companies.

USTAR has recruited researchers from top research universities such as MIT, Harvard University, UCLA, Case Western, University of Arizona and Oak Ridge National Laboratory — a human capital that has returned $131 million in grants. These researchers also have produced more than 330 invention disclosures, 202 patents and provisional patents, and started or relocated 10 companies.

One of USTAR’s startup companies is WAVE, which was spun out of research conducted at USU. The research produced a wireless power transfer technology to electrify vehicles without the use of heavy and expensive batteries. Instead of buses charging their batteries with a plug overnight, WAVE’s technology allows a bus to be charged wirelessly many times throughout the day in a matter of minutes.

McAleer says the secret to USTAR’s success is its people — people like Hunter Wu, Ph.D., WAVE’s director of commercial product development for wireless power transfer. Wu has been working on the project since 2011 and says he has been impressed with USTAR, USU and the State of Utah’s bold vision to invest in a technology that is revolutionary and high risk, but could potentially have huge returns — something USTAR does on a regular basis.

Wu says, “It is always a dream of an engineer, like myself, to develop technology that could eventually one day change the world. Seeing the research and development being used in a real company is a first step in this journey.”