At the bottom of the recession in 2009, Utah’s economy was losing jobs at the rate of six percent a year. A year later, the number of jobs was growing again, but slowly. Today, Utah is adding jobs at close to three percent annually and the state’s unemployment rate has dropped below six percent for the first time since 2008.
Residential and business construction was the hardest hit sector by far, and the Utah Foundation’s Morgan Lyon Cotti says it’s been among the slowest to recover.
“Because construction took such a hit during the recession,” Cotti tells KUER,”it’s actually changed the makeup of Utah’s economy. Before, construction made up about eight percent – eight and a half percent -- of the economy and now it’s just under six.
Mining and natural resources, health care and business services have led the way in job growth. With the opening of the City Creek Center, retail employment has also gone up. Utah has also managed to add some jobs by bringing in some new companies and persuading other local firms to expand with the help of tax incentives. They include Adobe, BioFire Diagnostics and, just this week, ENVE Composites. Morgan Lyon Cotti says they have made a difference, even as other firms in Utah have struggled.
“The incentives that state and local governments can offer, they help to attract those other businesses,” Cotti says. “They make it known that Utah’s an attractive place to establish a business and to be able to hire employees. And we also saw that during the recession, those states with better incentives were able to weather the recession a little better.”
Even with the state’s general economy looking better, the number of children living in poverty in Utah has continued to increase. But, in a debate with his Democratic opponent, Utah’s Republican governor said there are some hopeful signs there as well.
“The good news is, growing the economy is the best thing I can do for those who are impoverished, making sure they have a job so they can help themselves,” said Governor Gary Herbert in response to a question about poverty in Utah. “And again, it’s working. The last 12 months, those who’ve accessed food stamps in our state have gone down 3.1%. For those, the last 12 months, who’ve been accessing TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, it’s dropped 17.9%”
Tracy Gruber of the advocacy group Voices for Utah Children asked the question the governor was responding to. She points out there’s more than one reason those numbers could be going down.
“A lot of those benefits, due to time deadlines, are running out,” says Gruber. “So we’re seeing the rolls decrease. To us, that isn’t an indication that things are improving for those families. It’s just an indication that they’re no longer able to access those benefits.”
For Herbert’s Democratic opponent, Peter Cooke, economic development boils down to one issue: adequate funding for public schools.
“Without education,” Cooke asserted in the debate, “we cannot have an economic development program, and without that, we can’t move this tide up. That’s what’s important to realize. And probably the most important thing here – we’ve lost – this economy has not recovered. In the last three months, we have started to see our unemployment go. And then we still have 80,000 people still without jobs. And that needs to be taken care of.”
Cooke dismisses Herbert’s constant citing of articles in national media praising Utah’s business climate, saying that’s been going on a long time, ever since he was the state’s economic development director under Governor Scott Matheson.