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Utah officials have a new target in their effort to produce more workers for growing industries — and some in the untapped class may still be sipping from juice boxes.

As part of a renewed push to align public and higher education with "workforce needs," K-12 schools or districts are now eligible for a share of $3.4 million in grants to be administered by the Department of Workforce Services, Utah economic and education leaders announced Wednesday.

"We strongly encourage partnerships with employers," said Melisa Stark, DWS program specialist. "That's really the crux of why we're here — to meet the needs of industry."

Most public students who receive tech and science-related training will be teens nearing college, but proposals may reach all the way down to kindergarten.

Grants from the "Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership" have gone to colleges, certificate programs and professional associations since 2013. They aim to turn out qualified workers for jobs in such industries as aerospace, energy, health care, manufacturing and digital media.

"I think it's a positive thing," said Higher Education Commissioner David Buhler, who says the $3.4 million is enough to strengthen the pipeline but does not invite industry to design lessons. "It's pretty focused," Buhler added.

For example, training programs in high schools allow would-be medical students some hands-on training before they go to college and "cut out a heart on a cadaver and say, 'Oh, this wasn't what I wanted to do,' " said Sandra Hemmert, the career and technical education coordinator at Granite School District.

Last year, officials divvied $2 million among 12 degree and certificate programs. Three economic development groups also received a share.

A January study from the American Educational Research Association noted that short-term certificates often provide no more benefit to students than a high school diploma.

More research on certificate programs is "a little slow to the game" and is only getting underway, said DWS Chief Economist Carrie Mayne. In general, she added, more education spells better returns.

Others stress that certificates often may stack up to a degree, allowing students to chip away at bachelor's or master's as they work.

"It can then provide them some income," Buhler said. "Maybe a better job than fast food or something, while they go to college."

No matter their ultimate career, students who "focus on a pathway" are more likely to graduate on time, said Thalea Longhurst, the Utah State Office of Education's director of career, technical and adult education.

A past program grant will help Jeff Merrill, an eighth grader at Thomas Edison Charter School in Logan, to attend international VEX Robotics competition in Louisville, Ky., this year. Bridgerland Applied Technology College won $174,560 last year and funds Merrill's team.

"This is really important," Merrill said of the state push. "A lot of kids want to be engineers but don't know how to become engineers."

Merrill, also a singer and soccer player, is considering an eventual master's in business.

Not all teens share Merrill's experience: No student applied for the 2014 grant geared at Native American students.

Twitter: @anniebknox

Grant amounts

2013 • $1.13 million

2014 • $2 million

2015 • $3.45 million ($2.2 million for certificate and degree programs; $1.25 million for public education)