The Utah Solutions Summit is one of the few days of the year when I know I’m going to learn something new and interesting. I know I’m going to meet extraordinary people with inspiring stories. And I know I’m going to engage in a positive and productive dialogue about real solutions to the challenges we’re facing here in Utah and across the country.

This probably sounds like a typical day for most of you, but I work in Congress... so events like this are a refreshing change of pace.

The focus of this year’s Summit is workforce preparation, which is something we do very well here in Utah.

Utah has one of the lowest poverty levels and the lowest level of income inequality of any state in America. Our economy ranked second in the nation for job growth last year, and CNBC recently named Utah the top state for doing business in 2016.

In addition to the incredible array of homegrown Utah businesses, every year more and more companies – from small start-ups to global corporations – want to start calling Utah home. And we see this in virtually every industry, from outdoor retail to advanced manufacturing to high-tech and life sciences.   

There are many reasons behind Utah’s strong, growing economy.

  • Our state and local governments are effective, responsible, and focused on solving problems, not creating them;
  • Electric power and the cost of living are affordable here in Utah, especially compared to many coastal cities where start-ups are finding it too expensive to run their business and families are finding it too expensive to raise a family;
  • And finally, we have some of the smartest, hardest-working people on the planet, who are supported and educated by world-class parents, teachers, and instructors.

And this points to the real secret to Utah’s success: the people.

It can be easy to take this for granted if you’re from Utah. But when you travel outside the state – as I do every week – you realize just how extraordinary the people of Utah are.

Utahns are more than just good workers – they’re great citizens. They’re friendly, neighborly, and generous. We look out for one another and help each other in times of need. And we realize that the only way to make things work is to work together.

That’s the cooperative, enterprising spirit that led a group of teenagers from Herriman High School to establish the city’s first Chamber of Commerce earlier this year.

Historically, the city of Herriman never had its own Chamber of Commerce. It was small enough and close enough to the Salt Lake Valley that it could rely on the South Valley Chamber to help promote its businesses. That’s just the way it had always been. But that changed when three high school students dared to be different.

Then a few months ago, Hannah Petersem, Marin Murdock, and Keenan Budd realized that the old way was no longer working for the people and businesses of their community. Herriman has become one of the fastest growing cities in Utah, so they decided that it deserved its own Chamber of Commerce.

As these students met with business leaders and city officials to get the Chamber up and running, they quickly learned that it didn’t matter who they were or how old they were. What mattered was that they had a good idea and the determination to turn their idea into reality.

I understand that Hannah and Keenan have since graduated, but Marin is here with us today. Marin, do you mine standing to accept some recognition for your accomplishments today?

So if anyone ever asks you how Utah became one of the most popular destinations in America for venture-capital funding and pioneering businesses, just tell them the story of Hannah, Marin, and Keenan, and they’ll understand.

But despite Utah’s many successes, we’re all here today because we know we can do more... we know we need to be better.

Utah still has an incredible reservoir of untapped potential. We still have more room to grow and prosper together. The question is: will we have the workforce we need to get us there? Will manufacturing, technology, and life-science companies continue to see Utah as the best place to find enough skilled workers to meet future demand?

These are questions I know many of you and your organizations have been working on for years.  Lane Beattie and the Salt Lake Chamber’s Prosperity 2020 are striving to ensure two-thirds of Utahns achieve post-secondary training by 2020. 

Nolan Karras and Education First want to make Utah one of the top ten education states in the nation. 

And Governor Herbert and his Office of Economic Development are doing everything they can to make sure businesses are creating and maintaining jobs in Utah.

We need to keep the discussion going and find new ways to work together.  To continue to be innovative and even disruptive in some cases.

The goal of this year’s Summit is to examine the challenges and opportunities facing Utah’s workforce from every angle, leaving no stone unturned. When it comes to empowering Utah’s workers, there’s no one right answer, just as there are no dumb questions.

As a federal legislator, one of the questions that concerns me the most is how federal education policy makes it harder for today’s students – and would-be students – to acquire the skills they need to succeed in our competitive economy.

It’s impossible to know exactly what the economy will look like in the future. But we know one thing for sure: to succeed in the 21st Century, the vast majority of Americans will need some form of post-secondary knowledge and skills.

We also know that spending four years at a traditional brick-and-ivy residential college or university is no longer the only way to get that knowledge and those skills.

And if you think about it, the Bachelor’s Degree was never the only path to career preparation, for two reasons.

First, the purpose of a liberal arts education is not to turn students into good workers – like molding the cogs of a machine – but to teach them how to be responsible citizens. Higher education should not be seen as simply a means to an end – it should be an enriching and ennobling experience that teaches students how to think as much as it teaches them what to think.

Second, most of the skills and know-how required to succeed in a career can’t simply be taught in a classroom – they also have to be learned on the job. Think about all the jobs you’ve ever held – how many of them did you learn to do well by reading a textbook or listening to a lecture?

This doesn’t mean classroom learning is obsolete. In fact, for most people and most careers it’s essential. The point is that job preparation typically requires both kinds of learning – in the classroom and on the job. This is increasingly true in today’s high-tech world, where the jobs in the fastest-growing industries require advanced skills that can be learned through high-quality instruction, but can be mastered only through hands-on experience.  

We also can’t ignore the fact that the definition of “classroom learning” has changed dramatically in recent years. Today, technology makes it possible for students to take classes from professors in another state or country. Today, anyone with an iPad can carry a library around in their backpack. But the diversity of students’ life circumstances today also means that not everyone’s education will fit within the credit-hour system or the traditional academic calendar.

That’s why we’re seeing so many vocational schools, apprenticeships, distance-learning options, and specialized training programs – like computer programming and coding boot camps – springing up across Utah and the country. These new higher-education models are flexible enough to accommodate the working mom or the stay-at-home dad, whose unique – and busy – schedules give new meaning to the term “full course load.”

But unfortunately, the vast majority of students are restricted from accessing this essential post-secondary market because of our outdated federal policy governing higher-education accreditation.

Here’s how it works.

Under current federal law, students who receive federal financial assistance are prohibited from enrolling in any school or training program that is not approved by one of the nation’s accreditation entities.

But many of today’s most innovative education providers don’t look or operate like a traditional college or university, so they find themselves locked out of the accreditation process. And anyone who needs federal assistance is locked out from accessing these new sources of knowledge and skills.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can empower students to access federal financial-aid dollars and the school or training program that meets their needs.

A bill that I introduced in the Senate would do just that.

It’s called the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, and it would allow states to create their own alternative systems of accreditation.

Things like HERO are sometimes described as a form of “disruptive innovation.” But this misses the point. The “disruption” of higher education has already happened. Alternative education models already exist – and we know that they work!

The HERO Act would simply allow states to validate their existence and empower more good teachers to teach and more willing students to learn.

And that’s ultimately why we’re all here today.

Each person at this Summit has dared to be different – you have challenged the status quo and sought new ways to help prepare yourself and those in your workplace and in your community to succeed in the 21st Century economy.

But I want to challenge you to be even better. I want to challenge you to think about all of those individuals who you haven’t reached yet.

Maybe it’s the single mom who lives down the street and is just barely scraping by, juggling multiple part-time jobs. She wants to become a nurse, but she doesn’t have the time – even if she had the money – to go back to school full time.

Or maybe it’s the young man waiting tables at your neighborhood restaurant, who dropped out of college after falling behind. He wants to be a manufacturing technician, but with all his student-loan debt, he can’t afford the transition from the restaurant to the shop floor.

These men and women are no different from Hannah, Marin, and Keenan of Herriman High School. They have big dreams and high hopes for their future. So the question for us today is: what can we do, individually and together, to help remove the obstacles in their lives and empower those who are being left behind by today’s status quo?

Because figuring out the answer to that question is what really gets us out of bed in the morning. It’s why we do what we do – not for our own personal satisfaction or convenience, but to make a difference in someone’s life and to help others fulfill their God-given potential.

As your representative in the Senate, I pledge to you that I will do everything that I can – at the federal level – to help remove the obstacles to a good education and job-training that are preventing so many Americans from pursuing their dreams. And as your fellow Utahn, I invite all of you to join me in this effort.