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Utah’s tight job market means UTA’s hiring struggles could continue into 2023

Skiers and snowboarders board a UTA bus headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon on Dec. 23, 2022.
Sean Higgins
Skiers and snowboarders board a UTA bus headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon on Dec. 23, 2022.

The Utah Transit Authority is looking for bus drivers. But a tight labor market makes filling those positions a challenge. It cut back and even eliminated some bus routes earlier in December because of the shortage.

Statewide unemployment is a very low 2.2%, and the overall job market shows few signs of slowing down despite recent tech-sector layoffs. A tight labor market means companies across the board are competing to find workers to fill open positions.

“Amazon is hiring, UPS is hiring, FedEx is hiring,” said UTA spokesperson James Larson. “Truck driving companies are having a shortage all the way around. Schools are having trouble finding school bus drivers and likewise, us.

The lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic might also be a factor. According to UTA, the agency saw an “unanticipated” number of workers leave over the last three years for higher-wage jobs or jobs with fewer in-person interactions.

And that trend is not unique to the transportation industry. Even the post office and social services are hard up for help in Utah.

With the pandemic … lots of people have been working at home,” said Utah State University economics professor James Feigenbaum. “There's all kinds of things shifting in our society and the pandemic was like the catalyst for that to happen.

Larson said UTA is using incentives like signing bonuses up to $2,000 after one year of employment and encouraging college students to consider bus driving as a job while they learn.

It's a long game of changing the mindset of the younger generation that these are amazing opportunities as you're working towards your college degree or as you're working towards those higher-end jobs,” said Larson.

Nationwide inflation and recession fears have also put a damper on long-range economic forecasts, but experts say Utah’s economy is in a good place to weather that storm if it does come.

“Job growth will slow some and the unemployment rate will also rise some,” said Utah Department of Workforce Services chief economist Mark Knold. “But there is just too much momentum and too much tightness in the Utah labor market for the Fed to dramatically knock the Utah economy off track.”

The Utah Legislature also is expected to consider free public transit for a year during the upcoming 2023 general session. Larson said UTA hopes to restore bus full service as soon as enough drivers are found.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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