CEDAR CITY — Southern Utah University recently secured a five-year grant totaling $1 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration under the 2023 University Center Competition.

Paiute Tribal Administrator Shane Parashonts visits with SUU President Mindy Benson (left) and Best Friends Animal Society CEO Julie Castle during brunch, Cedar City, Utah, March 7, 2023 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The “FutureReady Utah Worksite Ecosystem Project” will focus on disadvantaged and rural regions and is designed to encourage collaboration between employers and business resource organizations to prepare for growth, according to a news release from SUU.

The university’s proposal emerged as the sole recipient in the state of Utah and one of 23 grants awarded to colleges and universities in 14 states for administering programs to leverage their assets, promote innovation and strengthen regional economies.

“Connecting businesses to resources and training while also cultivating a proficient workforce is essential for future success in the region,” Stephen Lisonbee, assistant vice president of SUU’s Regional Services, said in a news release. “The importance of this project is evident in the partners who have come together to participate.”

The application’s approach engages collaboration between three higher education institutions – SUU, Utah Tech University and Snow College – and is designed to address the changing workforce needs in southwest and central Utah. As part of the proposal, the three institutions have also agreed to financially commit to the project with combined contributions matching the $1 million EDA grant awarded.  

The multiregional FutureReady Worksite team includes (L-R, back to front) Aimee DiBrienza, Kenley Steck, Travis Kyhl, David Busk, Sylvia Bradshaw, Maria Twitchell, Joni Anderson, Jenna Draper, Janice Brooks, Suzette Bulloch, Michael Day, Bryan Thiriot, Greyson Jones, Wyatt Anderson, Melynda Thorpe and Cathy Hart | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We’re pleased to partner with Southern Utah University and Snow College to participate in the FutureReady Worksite project, where together we will provide technical assistance to an 11-county area as we aim for regional equity while cultivating innovation, developing a high-skilled workforce, and increasing the resiliency of our southwestern Utah region,” Utah Tech University President Richard B. Williams said in a news release

The project aims to elevate skills in strategic economic priority sectors as designated by the State of Utah and to support regional economic development strategies to bring high-wage jobs to southern Utah, and to skill a workforce that is ready to receive them.

In addition to taking training into rural towns, a regional coordination council will work with the three institutions to create learn-to-work pathways that are affordable, accessible and offer short-term entry points into higher-wage jobs in the workforce. 

“In rural Utah, we face a shortage of high-wage job opportunities, are experiencing housing shortages, and lack equal access to workforce development opportunities,” Travis Kyhl, executive director at Six County Association of Governments, said in a news release. “This grant will offer meaningful training opportunities and develop the regional workforce in ways that have not been done in the past.”  

In addition to the partnering institutions, the FutureReady Worksite project broadly engages 15 chambers of commerce, 10 business innovation centers and two economic development districts comprising 11 southwest and central Utah counties (Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Juab, Kane, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier, Washington, Wayne), and the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Nation.

“We support this multiregional approach to developing economic resilience and address the compounded challenges regarding hiring, retention, skills gaps and equitable access to resources,” said Derrin Owens, economic development director for Snow College, in a news release. “Training and targeted outreach efforts will extend to 11 rural county communities in southern and central Utah – empowering employers, employees, entrepreneurs, and residents alike in developing a future-ready talent pool.”

Beginning with an SUU-led post-pandemic research effort to explore changing needs in the southwest Utah workforce, the FutureReady Worksite model addresses specific challenges facing the region. According to the research, regional workforce challenges include the impact of significant population growth due to an increasing attraction to rural living, rising housing costs, emerging gig and online work opportunities and a gap in high-wage skills attainment.  

“We are passionate about the future of southern Utah, and this effort will require working together to solve for the evolving needs of our region’s employers and employees,” said Melynda Thorpe, SUU executive director of Community and Workforce Development and the FutureReady Worksite project, in a news release. “Some local residents are finding it difficult to afford to continue to live in the communities they love. As partners, we’d like to help remedy that with special attention offered to our underrepresented communities.” 

SUU’s Community and Workforce Development department offers opportunities for adults to elevate their careers, stay competitive in the workforce and develop as leaders. Located in the world’s best backyard, Southern Utah University is world-renowned for its access to outdoor recreation and the National Park Service. Click here for more information.