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Graduation season helps Utah see the most people working or looking since 2009

According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, abundant job opportunities, aggressive wages and an influx of youth are the primary drivers behind more people looking for work.
Sean Higgins
According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, abundant job opportunities, aggressive wages and an influx of youth are the primary drivers behind more people looking for work.

According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services’ June employment report, the number of Utahns 16 and older who are either working or looking for work rose to its highest level since 2009.

Just three months ago in March, Utah's [labor force] participation rate was at 68.9%,” said Mark Knold, the department’s chief economist. “That is a commendable rate and one of the highest in the nation. But in just the past three months, the rate has risen further to 69.6%.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the national average for labor force participation in June at 62.6%.

According to Knold, 18,000 more Utanhs have entered the labor market since March.

“The combination of graduation season, a job market with many vacant jobs and the highest yearly wage gains of the past 17 years are enticing more people to get into the job market,” said Knold.

An influx of people looking for work also means the state’s unemployment rate rose slightly, from 2.3% in May to June’s 2.4%. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Utah businesses have been clamoring for employees amid record-low unemployment since 2021. Despite fears of recession and inflation in 2022, Utah voters still expressed confidence in the job market when asked about the issue last fall.

[Those new people] become part of the unemployment calculation until they find a job,” said Knold. “Therefore, the unemployment rate has gone up just a bit. But for a positive reason rather than a negative one.”

Much of Utah’s recent growth took place in the leisure and hospitality industry, which experienced an increase of approximately 17,000 jobs compared to June 2022. That industry often relies on younger workers to fill open positions — especially in the summer months.

Industry leaders said market conditions are ripe for young workers right now.

“If I'm a 17-year-old kid and I'm now making $18 an hour and I'm still living at home with my parents, there's a lot of incentive to go get a job,” said Melva Sine, CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association. “Everyone is paying higher salaries. And as a result, you're seeing a lot of movement in the industry.”

And the demand for those jobs is high.

“When we see a major group, like Lagoon [amusement park], there definitely is a spur in the summertime,” said Sine. “They need probably at least a thousand people helping take care of their food operation in those May, June, July, August and September months.”

But it’s not all good news. According to Sine, competition for employees is fierce and rising housing costs have made staffing even more difficult. Sine said even though Utah restaurants have largely recovered to pre-pandemic staffing levels, there are still a lot of jobs that need filling.

“In very many restaurants right now, you have one person doing the job of two people trying to get to as many tables as possible because there still exists a shortage in the restaurant industry,” she said. “I'm not saying that these [job] indicators are not positive. The fact that more young people are entering the workforce in that 16 to maybe 25 age range is a very positive thing.”

Even though many of those young workers will likely return to school in the fall, the industry is bolstered by seasonal workers in winter who come to work in Utah’s resort economy.

“Our ski industry doesn't operate in the summer, but man, they operate big time and add huge to the economy in the wintertime,” said Sine.

According to Ski Utah, a record-breaking 7.1 million skiers and snowboarders visited Utah resorts during the 2022-2023 winter, and they spent $2.35 billion.

Even though Utah’s employment numbers take seasonal spikes and dips into consideration, Knold views June’s numbers as encouraging for continued growth into the rest of the year.

“The fact that [the labor force participation] rate is going up right now even when a seasonal spike happens, it is saying that the seasonal jolt this year is larger than normally seen at this time of year,” said Knold.

The only sector of Utah’s economy that contracted in the June report was the financial industry, which posted a year-over-year loss of 700 jobs.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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