But when those or other groups change their lens, the state’s business environment becomes less celebrated — Utah dropped to No. 46 on Oxfam’s 2023 list of the best and worst states to work in, with only a handful of southern states ranked lower.
And Utah is routinely ranked as one of the worst states for women, often based on factors that include a wide gender wage gap and fewer women in political and business leadership positions.
Here’s a look at the data shaping these depictions of our booming Western state.
What makes Utah a great state for business?
The state’s young population and educated workforce is often cited by the state’s boosters — and those factors helped Utah also hit No. 1 in WalletHub’s underlying “access to resources” category. It won points for having a large working-age population (ages 16 to 64) and the share that has at least a bachelor’s degree.
Access to financing — calculated with small business loans and venture capital investment — also mattered here. Utah boasts an array of VC groups, student startup funds and other programs. And lawmakers recently approved creating the Utah Innovation Lab, an independent nonprofit to invest in startups at the “pre-seed” phase, before venture capitalists are willing to jump in.
Utah also ranked in the top 10 in the underlying “business environment” category, based on factors that include a state’s variety of industries, its job and GDP growth since before the pandemic or since its early months, and its government’s digital savvy.
The state boasts a diverse economy that rebounded quickly after coronavirus shutdowns. And Utah state government often wins kudos for its use of technology to deliver information and services.
Utah’s lowest ranking was in business costs, though it has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the country and offers tax break incentives to companies in selected areas and industries.
Based on similar criteria, Utah dominated the 2021 WalletHub list of best small cities to start a business, taking six of the top 10 slots with St. George at the top. In 2023, St. George was No. 2 behind the nearby town of Washington, two of the five Utah towns in the top 10.
Utah’s bilingual workforce — nurtured, in part, by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints training members to serve missions around the world — also has been credited with attracting businesses to the state.
What about the workers who help power Utah’s success?
Utah wages have historically been lower than other areas, another draw for businesses. And while there has been upward pressure in recent years, when adjusted for inflation, Utah’s median incomes have held all but flat since 2002, even as its job base and gross domestic product have increased.
And Utah is in the minority of states that have left their minimum wage at the federal threshold — $7.25 — a major contributor to its low ranking at No. 46 on Oxfam’s 2023 annual list of best states to work in.
Oxfam, a global nonprofit that fights inequality, tracks 26 policies in three areas — wages, worker protections and rights to organize. Utah was a bit higher, at No. 44 overall, when Salt Lake Tribune data columnist Andy Larsen took a look at the numbers in 2022.
“Here’s the thing,” Larsen wrote. “I don’t think minimum wage is a very representative way of looking at the issue of worker pay.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “there were 866,000 hourly employees in Utah in 2021,” Larsen explained. “In total, 13,000 of those had earnings of minimum wage or below.”
“… We should actively try to improve their lives — including by boosting the minimum wage,” Larsen opined. “But they make up just 1.5% of Utah’s total hourly workforce.”
Oxfam had stronger points with its critique of Utah’s employee protections, Larsen wrote, including the lack of laws regulating abrupt changes to work schedules, requiring sexual harassment training in private workplaces and safeguards against smoke and heat for outdoor crews.
As far as rights to organize, Larsen found, “it’s hard to describe Utah as a union-friendly state, but it hasn’t outright prohibited union activities like a handful of other states.”
For Utahns who do make minimum wage, the state’s housing crisis can be especially harsh. There is no county statewide where working at minimum wage for 40 hours a week can earn enough to afford the cheapest living space, not even a studio, according to research by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
[Read more: See how many minimum wage hours it takes to afford a modest rental in your Utah county]
Even with housing prices dipping later in 2023, Utah’s housing markets remained unaffordable for most residents.
“We’ve cut out a lot of the first-time buyers,” said Dave Anderton, spokesperson for the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. “But even move-up buyers are getting frozen out of this market. We’re in a dilemma right now.”
Why is Utah routinely labeled as the worst state for women?
Over and over — in earlier years and again in 2019, in 2020, in 2021, in 2022 and now in 2023, Utah has been ranked worst state in the nation for women’s equality.
It has the country’s worst gender wage gap, comparatively few women in executive positions and disparities in political representation, WalletHub pointed out in this year’s ranking — all data points that have been persistent and widely cited in other evaluations of life for women in Utah.
“Being last again does not feel great,” said Kelly Whited Jones, president of the Utah Equal Rights Amendment Coalition, in 2021. “It’s painful for me to read those numbers and understand what that translates to in people’s lives and families’ lives.”
The Tribune examined Utah’s reputation as the worst state for women’s equality, as part of a series published in 2021, examining the status of women in the Beehive State.
[Read more: Fact-checking Utah’s reputation as the worst state for women’s equality]
The data showed that while women in Utah had improved over the years across different metrics — gender wage gap, political representation, education and top jobs — they still lagged behind their peers in other states.
[Take the quiz: See if you can tell whether this quote is about Utah women in 1964 or 2019.]
Among Utah’s continuing challenges for families: Child care in Utah can cost as much as in-state college tuition, and it’s going to get more expensive.
WalletHub’s broader ranking of 2023′s Best & Worst States for Women uses different and broader criteria, including women’s social well-being, health care and safety. Utah ranked higher there, at No. 37 among 50 states and the District of Columbia.
“It can be easy to be dismissive of reports like this that don’t show the ‘whole picture,’” Utah State University Professor Susan R. Madsen, director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, wrote in a recent commentary.
“But the more data and information we have allows us to be more strategic in finding ways to ensure that all Utahns can thrive,” she continued. “The research is clear: improving women’s economic and social well-being, along with women’s health care and safety, helps families, workplaces and society at large. Helping women helps Utah.”
Editor’s note • This story contains previous reporting and commentary by Tribune writers Becky Jacobs, Andy Larsen and others.