We have the sun, the fun, favorite desert escapes, sports teams, amazing restaurants and resorts, innovative career opportunities — and the list of what attracts people to Arizona goes on and on. And new reasons to relocate to Greater Phoenix grow daily, as does the talent needed to support and nurture the region’s growth. That’s where Arizona universities have stepped up to help drive that economic development and growth.

Grand Canyon University, Arizona State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Phoenix, and Maricopa Community Colleges are a sampling of another growing list — a catalog of higher education institutions that are supplying talented, forward-thinking and dynamic graduates to fuel innovation and entice new businesses to the state.

Arizona universities key to growth

“After infrastructure, the labor supply and labor production of a market is its second most critical ingredient,” says Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC). “What I’ve observed in the last decade with the manifestation of our engineering capacity within ASU, UArizona, GCU, University of Phoenix, and a lot of the regional university systems and community colleges, is we’re constantly iterating and modernizing the way that we induce curriculum to meet industry needs.”

The local markets for which Camacho refers range from healthcare and bioscience to software and cybersecurity to advanced business services and financial services to startups and advanced manufacture, to a host of operations-based industries — and then some. And, to ensure these business sectors and others receive the talent they require, higher education leaders are remaining attuned to the pulse of growing industries.

“Our Phoenix campus director, Jeff Hendrickson, currently serves on the Next Committee for the Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC), which helps to guide and provide input on economic development for the region,” says Kevin Wilhelmsen, dean of the College of Business and Information Technology for University of Phoenix. “Having our central offices located in Phoenix also provides the opportunity for other leaders to collaborate in the local Phoenix market.”

Unity drives success

Collaboration among Arizona’s leaders (both in the educational realm and out) has — and continues to — flourish. The proof is clearly demonstrated in expanding markets — the technology sector inMetro Phoenix is a perfect example. According to the Office of Governor Doug Ducey, the tech market in Arizona is increasing 40 percent faster compared with the rest of the United States overall. Tech-job wages have risen by 5.1 percent in Metro Phoenix, with an average yearly salary of $80,000-plus — which is welcoming news for graduates entering the market from Arizona’s universities.

“To keep up with the needs of the tech sector, the University of Phoenix College of Business and Information Technology works closely with the Arizona Technology Council, and its president and CEO (Steven G. Zylstra) serves on our college’s academic advisory council,” Wilhelmsen says.

But, the tech market isn’t the only booming area to demand skilled graduates.

“We continue to invest in our engineering schools, business schools, and medical schools, because those create the future workforce that all of these jobs we’re supporting integration of are going to need,” Camacho says. “I’ll give you one example: Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering has more than 24,000 students and nearly 60 degree options on two campuses and online.”

Kristen Stephenson, vice president of research and analytics for GPEC, says ASU and other Arizona universities do a good job training its engineering students to be to work in the Metro Phoenix technology sector, which now includes about 500 software companies and an estimated 85,060 high tech — a 12.3 percent increase over five years.

“The skills training ASU provides, especially in engineering, is critical to these companies, because in order for a company to grow and find success in an area they need to attract a talented workforce,” Stephenson says.

Preparing today for tomorrow

Another innovative institution among Arizona universities that is filling the workforce demands of a knowledge-based economy is Grand Canyon University.

“As a comprehensive liberal arts university, GCU is producing graduates in a wide variety of job fields including business, engineering, technology, computer science, Christian studies, and counseling-behavioral health,” says Brian Mueller, president of GCU. “Two other notable job fields where GCU is producing a large number of graduates are in healthcare and education, where there are significant workplace shortages for nurses and teachers. GCU is the largest provider of nurses in Arizona and our pre-med program is also very strong.”

But it’s not just universities that are guiding Arizona’s future innovators. Helios Scholars at TGen provides undergraduate and some medical and graduate students a paid internship that aims to prepare the next generation of Arizona bioscience researchers and physicians.

Since 2007, more than 500 students have participated in Helios Scholars at TGen. TGen scientists share research expertise and technical skills, bioethics, experimental design, and the translational process of quickly moving laboratory discoveries into new therapeutics to benefit patients with neurological disorders, infectious diseases and many types of cancer.

“By immersing them in the ultra-high-tech world of modern biomedical science, TGen challenges these students to become their very best,” says Paul J. Luna, president and CEO of the Helios Education Foundation. “These real-world laboratory experiences at TGen prepare students for success in college and career as well as help strengthen our state’s future knowledge-based workforce.”

Both Wilhelmsen and Mueller point out that a majority of graduates from Arizona universities remain in the state to fulfill labor supply gaps.

“On our ground campus in Phoenix, over half of our students come from out of state, which creates a significant economic impact in Phoenix,” Mueller says. “A large number of those out-of-state students remain in Arizona after they graduate, contributing to the workforce and economy.”

Wilhelmsen says the University of Phoenix has an alumni base of more 1 million graduates, many residing in Arizona.

In an effort to continue cultivating talent, Camacho says that there is no place for complacency.

“Today, we are winning these semiconductor companies, these research and development operations, these next generation cyber companies because we have a very strong base of engineering talent,” Camacho says. “If I were King for a day, I would be doubling down on engineering capacity, the STEM, and the P-20 education system because that will create dividends for us massively down the road, as more and more companies flock here to take advantage of our wonderful climate, our livability, our cost of living, and then obviously, creating the job space the future.”

Phoenix is the No. 1 hot spot for talent

Maricopa County ranks first among large U.S. counties for talent attraction, according to a report by labor analytics firm Emsi. Here’s a look at other highlights from the report:

• Maricopa County topped the 2020 list, based on data collected right before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Maricopa County ranked in second place in 2019, according to Emsi’s Talent Attraction Scorecard.

• Maricopa County recorded an 18% increase in skilled jobs from 2015-19.

• Phoenix is one of the few large cities in the country that is not residents leaving in droves. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles ranked highest for population losses from February to July 2020, with 110,978 people moving out of Manhattan during that time period.

People moving to Arizona from California represented 23 percent of all incoming residents over more than a decade, according to a CBRE report. From 2006 through 2018, 52,251 people moved from California to Arizona each year on average, compared with 32,361 people who moved from Arizona to the Golden State.