Utah women have high workforce participation

Story and photo by WHITNEY BUTTERS

A common Utah stereotype is that of the college girl who wants nothing more than to get her “M.R.S. degree” long before the first strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” play on graduation day. With a ring on her finger and marital bliss complete, she promptly quits both school and work to have children.

But this stereotype fails to acknowledge the truth about the women in Utah’s labor force.

Elizabeth Peterson rings up a customer’s purchase at Carter’s children’s clothing store. In addition to working 20 hours a week as a sales associate, Peterson works as a preparation chef at a reception all in order to earn sufficient income.

In reality, there are more Utah women in the workforce than the national average. According to Utah Department of Workforce Services (UDWS), approximately 61 percent of Utah women were in the workforce in 2009 compared to 59 percent nationally.

Beyond that, 82 percent of Utah women age 20-24 are in the labor force, making them the age group most likely to work.

While it is true that Utah women marry and have children at a younger age, many are breaking the supposedly rigid tradition of the “M.R.S. degree” by working to provide income and gain job experience. Especially in a time of economic recession, finding employment is necessary for women to be able to survive.

“It’s counterintuitive to how we perceive the culture in that we tend to think that Utah women don’t work,” Lecia Langston, labor economist for the UDWS, said. “The reality is that most women work, so we kind of have a faulty view of what’s really going on in the economy.”

Chloe Garfield, 20, is among the Utah women contributing to the unexpectedly high rates of workforce participation. As a newlywed, she works to make ends meet while she continues to study photography at the University of Utah.

“Since both my husband and I are in school and work, both incomes are crucial,” she said. “With both part-time salaries, it is enough to get us through school.”

Elizabeth Peterson, 20, a full time student at the U. studying communication science disorders, works two part-time jobs to be self-sufficient.

“I work because I have to,” she said. “If I didn’t work, I couldn’t pay for school, books, my car, gas, clothes makeup, getting my hair done or anything.”

Because young people like Garfield and Peterson make up approximately 32 percent of Utah’s population, the age group is not only the most likely to work but is also among the most likely to be unemployed. For men and women ages 20-24, the unemployment rate was 13 percent in 2010, second only to 16-19 year olds at 21 percent. This makes it hard for women in both age brackets to keep and find suitable employment.

Peterson was forced to seek new employment when her previous job cut her hours. She initially found work as a preparation chef at a reception hall in Bountiful called The Canterbury Place. But a downturn in the economy decreased the number of catered events, so she was forced to look for a second job. After her previous experience looking for a summer job, she knew the search would not be easy.

“I remembered all of the hours I had spent looking for companies who were hiring and applying for 30 plus jobs without any positive response, and I knew that it was going to be a stretch to find another job,” she said. “I was absolutely desperate, and I would have taken anything I could at that point.”

Peterson eventually found a second job working as a part-time sales associate at Carter’s children’s clothing store in Salt Lake City, where she works 20 hours a week in addition to her catering job

Garfield also had a hard time finding work.

“I was very frustrated that I was applying for jobs that I was more than qualified for but would not get,” she said. “I was even donating plasma trying to make some extra money.”

She got a job as a student caller for the University of Utah Development Office, which raises money for the school. She was promoted to student assistant after two years and tries to work more hours to help support herself and her husband.

Despite any difficulty younger women may face while seeking employment, Langston of the UDWS said it has benefits.

“(Older generations) aren’t like young women today that grew up with an expectation of working,” she said. “A lot of them have never been in the workforce, so there’s not even an interest in that unless they have to.”

Women today are gaining work experience early on, which Langston said will help build resumes and promote future job security.

Garfield cited the opportunity to gain experience as a reason she works.

“I feel that working and getting an education now will give me the skills to raise a family and will also allow me to be able to have the skills to return to work when I need to,” she said.

Langston believes building work experience is vital regardless of current conditions.

“Even if you do have the most wonderful situation where you don’t have to work, stuff happens,” she said. “Your husband loses his job or he gets hurt or you get divorced. All of those things make it so women need to protect themselves.”

Peterson agreed, saying she plans to prepare herself since life is unpredictable.

“Someday when I’m married and have children, I may or may not have an actual 9-to-5 job. I guess that will depend on my circumstances at that time,” she said. “Despite that, I know that I will continue to work hard.”