Heather King, left, and Michael King, right, and their son, Seth, 14, ride mountain bikes on the Big Water Trail in Millcreek Canyon on Monday, July 12, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — Whether they’re natives of the state or transplants, Utah’s fast-growing community of tech workers say the prime motivator for choosing to live in the Beehive State is its one-of-a-kind outdoor assets.
That’s at the heart of findings in a new report commissioned by industry group Utah Outdoor Partners and conducted by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute in Salt Lake City. The study focused on Utah’s tech businesses and employees, the state’s fastest-growing sector and one driven in large part by talent recruitment.
At a Tuesday press briefing about the study, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said he wasn’t surprised by how big a role outdoor assets play in workers’ decision-making processes, but noted some of the results were even more impressive than he’d expected.
“Now we have real evidence that … this has been an important piece of the growth we’ve had here,” Cox said. “I was especially amazed at some of the numbers, including that 85% of tech sector workers who chose to stay in Utah, despite a higher salary offer elsewhere, said that outdoor recreation was the reason they chose to stay here.
“You can’t pay people enough to leave once they get here and experience what we’re experiencing.”
Interest in, and engagement with, Utah’s great outdoors rose to unprecedented levels amid isolation conditions wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, and researchers found the state’s combination of wide-ranging outdoor activity options and easy access is a powerful weapon when it comes to attracting top talent to the state.
Tech employees who were successfully recruited by Utah companies said the sales pitch that resonated most with them was outdoor recreation opportunities and access, with cost of living a distant second, followed closely by career advancement.
For Utah natives in the tech industry who moved out of the state but ended up returning, outside activities outranked family when it came to their top motivators.
And it wasn’t even close.
Almost 62% of returning tech workers said outdoor recreation was the most important factor in their decision-making process versus around 49% who ranked family as the most important factor.
One prodigal Utah native told researchers the outdoor opportunities they found outside the state just didn’t measure up.
“When I moved, I moved to another city that was considered ‘outdoorsy’ — it had nothing on Utah cities, and the lack of urban greenspace (like parks) was notable,” the unidentified respondent said. “There were outdoors spots, but they were often overcrowded or difficult to get to.
“Because Utah has so many spaces, and they’re so nearby, it’s a much better experience.”
And a Midwest transplant who participated in the study said Utah’s outdoor spaces provided the perfect respite from a tech job that keeps them glued to their desk.
“I spend 40-60 hours a week staring at a computer screen, often way more — that is physically and emotionally exhausting,” the respondent said. “I love working in tech, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve been living in Utah for just a few years now and I still stare at the mountains every time we leave the house.
“I experience a greater sense of peace when I can spend time in nature, getting fresh air, challenging myself to do some new things. I’m from Missouri and, believe me, y’all got a lot of cool outdoors stuff here.”
Hiking, skiing and biking were the most mentioned activities in the study. When researchers asked participants how they would describe Utah’s top selling points to friends outside the state, easy access and the wide variety of outdoor activity options easily outpaced all other responses.
One person for whom no sales pitch will be necessary is the Utah native who heads the state’s Office of Outdoor Recreation and who grew up tagging along with his parents who worked in the local ski industry.
Patrick “Pitt” Grewe said one of the standout messages from the study was further evidence supporting the wide impact of Utah’s outdoor assets in economic categories outside the state’s vibrant tourism industry.
“I think one of the interesting parts of this study is bringing to the forefront the importance of outdoor recreation as a broader economic driver,” Grewe said. “We know how big it is for our tourism industry, but more and more data is coming out that shows how important a role it plays in how people evaluate quality of life … and make big life decisions with outdoor recreation as a major factor.”
Utah’s state and national parks saw a surge in use after early restrictions related to pandemic conditions were lifted last year and high visitor volumes have continued at those locations as well as trails, lakes and waterways located outside parks. Finding a balance in managing current outdoor assets while finding additional funding to continue building the state’s outdoor portfolio is much on the minds of lawmakers and state leaders.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, attended the briefing and said the word “wistful” comes to mind when he thinks about Utah’s outdoor gems.
That’s because, Wilson said, the outdoor places he visited the most while growing up in Utah are now teeming with visitors, and enjoying time there is just “harder than it used to be.”
To that end, Wilson said, he’s made investing in outdoor infrastructure a legislative priority and pointed to successful efforts in recent sessions to boost funding to the state’s outdoor operations, including money to establish two new state parks.
“We did invest a record amount of money,” Wilson said. “The state parks in this state have never had more money than they do right now, starting July 1 this year, to manage what they have and build more capacity.
“If I have my way, we’ll do that again next session.”
Correction: An earlier version included incorrect data from native Utahns who returned to work in the state, citing that 55% were most motivated to return by outdoor recreation versus 35% most motivated to return because of family. The correct response percentages are almost 62% said they were most motivated to return thanks to outdoor activities versus 49% who said family was the main motivator.