Competing to thrive: Utah workforce vs. Colorado high-velocity industry. Who has the edge?

By Bart Taylor | Aug 17, 2016

Aerospace & Electronics Brewing & Distilling Bioscience & Medical Built Environment Consumer & Lifestyle Energy & Enviro Food & Beverage Industrial & Equipment Supply Chain

In three years of profiling Colorado manufacturers and two years writing about Utah's sector, it's easy to understand why economic developers from each state view the other as primary competition. The attributes of each sector are strikingly similar.

It's hard, for example, to distinguish between aerospace and bioscience contract manufacturers fabricating for high-profile OEMs; between world-class gear and outdoor industry brands; or the development dialogue that's an envy of other states not benefitting from the in-migration of talent, money, and ambition. Both states boast great R&D research universities, transferring ideas and talent into the commercial stream. There are other similarities, much to do with the general appeal of the West.

There are differences. Utah is flush with consumer product brands compared to Colorado, where manufacturing is more significantly informed by ranching and agricultural. Colorado's craft beverage sector has a gravity of it's own, attracting like-minded businesses and a growing supply chain. In Weber County Utah's perfecting a regional cluster strategy around outdoor industry that Colorado officials envy, going so far as to emulate a state-level outdoor industry office to both steward resources and attract world-class companies.

But two differences stand out. Both translate into a distinct competitive advantage -- or potential missed opportunity for the other guy. How each responds may tip the competitive balance.

Utah is winning the workforce development game, maybe even nationally, no small feat or inconsequential advantage. Colorado manufacturers are significantly more challenged to find the next generation of industrial employees. On the other hand Colorado's high-velocity natural and organic products industry is an economic engine of its own, driven by a world-class ecosystem that starts and incubates early-stage companies. Food and beverage is the state's fastest growing manufacturing sector.

Is either a game-changer that tips the competitive balance? Can either state play catch-up and obviate the other's advantage?

Utah's workforce advantage is a beacon for manufacturers. Simply, the state's developing the next-generation talent manufacturers need -- educated, tech-savvy and capable but also shaped positively by Utah's cohesive community. Utah's sons and daughters leave, many on Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints missions, but return often fluent in another language, motivated and exposed to the world, to start careers and families surrounded by people of the same faith.

It results in workforce advantages difficult to replicate.

But a community bent on challenging conventional wisdom attracts its own talent and energy. Many of the companies that launched a natural and organic products revolution from Colorado are now multi-million dollar brands -- as are its craft beer counterparts. And the ecosystem of resources that's developed to support early-stage company growth is at once highly developed and attracting new players. Wall Street's taken up residence in Boulder County.

In the long view, Utah's workforce advantage may be harder for Colorado to replicate. The factors that combine to undergird workforce development here are unique. And the ecosystem that coalesced in Colorado to provide a foundation for innovation and fast-growth can certainly develop in Utah. Companies like PROBAR, Creminelli, and Kodiak Cakes, all companies we've featured, are an incredible foundation. They're national brands leading their own local revolution.

Yet our interest has always been promoting the region -- not just the attributes of a single state. As the region goes, so will its key players. As Colorado and Utah compete, it's fascinating to speculate how competitive the combined manufacturing assets of both states might be on the international stage.

A Western Manufacturing Consortium of developer's dreams.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at btaylor@companyweek.com.