Blog: Salt Lake County, Utah’s Premiere Economy

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Blog: Salt Lake County, Utah’s Premiere Economy

By: Max Backlund

Note: The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect an institutional position of the Gardner Institute. We hope the opinions shared contribute to the marketplace of ideas and help people as they formulate their own INFORMED DECISIONS™.

I grew up in Pleasant Grove, on a dead-end street that didn’t end in a cul-de-sac. The road just ended, half-built, surrounded by fields of alfalfa for 30 years until it was filled with new houses right as I moved away. After school I took my first job in downtown Salt Lake City. It was a change of scenery for a kid who grew up with alfalfa stains on his shoes to work on the 21st floor of a downtown tower. Like many Utahns before me, I left my home town for a job in the city.

In 1955 researchers coined the term, “social cost of space” to capture how economic processes take advantage of geography.[i] Our state’s geography affects both our standing in the national economy and the concentration of our population within our own borders.

Utah accounts for a small percentage of the United States’ population – roughly 1% of the 329.5 million. It also accounts for 1% of employment, and less than 1% of gross domestic product (GDP). The state’s economic performance has been strong for many years, garnering many “Best Economy” trophies. Because Utah’s economy is relatively small in relation to the United States, this strong economic performance is much more noticeable to the local participants than it is to the overall economic performance of the nation.

Most Utahns recognize the importance of Salt Lake County to the Utah economy, but fewer people realize just how much of our economy runs through our largest county. Salt Lake County is home to about one-third of the population, and provides just under half of the jobs, and more than half of the wages and GDP for the state. It is astonishing to consider that roughly 54% of the state’s total wages are paid in one county, which houses almost 47% of Utah’s jobs (see Table 1).

Table 1: Salt Lake County Economic Indicators Compared with the State of Utah, 2020

Source: Gardner Policy Institute Analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau,
Utah Department of Workforces Services and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Salt Lake County is not only the premiere employment center, it provides a greater concentration of high-paying jobs. White collar jobs, including professional, finance, and information technology jobs, see higher concentrations in the county, all greater than 50% of the state employment totals for each sector (see Table 2).

Table 2: Salt Lake County Employment by Selected Industry Compared with the State of Utah, 2020

Source: Gardner Policy Institute Analysis of data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services

Goods production and distribution employment is similar. While employment in manufacturing dips below the overall 47% mark, trade and transportation jobs are above 60% of statewide employment levels (see Table 3).

Table 3: Salt Lake County Employment by Selected Industry Compared with the State of Utah, 2020

Source: Gardner Policy Institute Analysis of data from the Utah Department of Workforce Services

Economic policy in the state must recognize and appreciate the unique geography of employment in Utah, particularly the dynamic between Salt Lake County and the other 28 counties. There are social costs associated with how our economy takes advantage of our geography that affect economic mobility, affordability, government services, and education opportunities, to name a few. Addressing these costs will help to more evenly distribute Utah’s economic growth across the state.

Max Backlund is a senior research associate at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

[i] Wilkinson, K. (1995). “Social Forces Shaping the Future of Rural Areas.” Investing in People: The Human Capital Needs of Rural America. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.