PROVO, UTAH — COMPUTER expert Craig Skidmore, based in Boston, never in his ``wildest imagination'' thought he would work in Provo, Utah, a place he recalled from his college days as a sleepy farming community.
But Mr. Skidmore quickly changed his mind after recently being offered a job - and taking a second look. Now he works on the cutting edge of the software business in an area free of big-city crime and congestion, and close to world-class skiing and recreation for his family.
``All of a sudden, Provo started looking very attractive,'' he says, taking in a vista of snow-capped Mt. Timpanogos outside his new office at the Provo-based software giant Novell Inc.
With Utah leading the nation in job creation and riding high on the Rocky Mountain states' economic boom, thousands of opportunity-seekers like Skidmore are moving to the Beehive State.
They are helping to transform it into one of America's new boom states. The changes are altering the social and cultural flavor of Utah - and beginning to produce some grumbling over housing prices and the influx of outsiders.
Utah's nonagricultural employment is projected to rise by more than 6 percent this year, for a net increase of at least 50,000 jobs. Provo-Orem ranks first in the rate of job growth this year among 245 metropolitan areas with fewer than 750,000 workers.
As a result, Utah had a net in-migration of 60,000 people over the last three fiscal years, and expects another 18,000 to arrive in fiscal 1995, according to the state planning and budget office. As many as 50 percent of the newcomers are from California.
Outside companies lured by Utah's relatively low taxes, low wages, and young, highly educated labor force are also setting up shop here. Delta Airlines stationed its western hub in Salt Lake City. Major credit-card firms, hotel chains, and airlines have located reservation and payment centers in the city.
Companies are also drawn by Utah's strong, Mormon-inspired work ethic and pro-business, Republican tradition. About 70 percent of the state's 1.9 million residents are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which led Utah's settlement beginning in 1847.
``Employers coming here find that Utah's workers are committed to doing the job correctly,'' says Gary Cornia, a business professor at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo.
Utah's boom is centered along the Wasatch Front, a 100-mile-long urban stretch rimmed by the Rockies' Wasatch Range running north from Provo through Salt Lake City to Idaho. About 80 percent of Utah's population lives on the Wasatch Front, which generates the bulk of the state's jobs and growth. Unemployment in the area is about 3.6 percent, well below the 5.8 US rate.
In the middle of the Wasatch Front along Interstate 15 is ``Software Valley,'' a cluster of hundreds of high-tech companies that is the main stimulus for Utah's vibrant economy.
``High technology has been the real run-up on the economy,'' Professor Cornia says.
More than 1,500 information- technology businesses employing more than 63,500 people - or about 8 percent of Utah's non-farm work force - have sprung up in the valley in recent years.
Most of the firms are small (70 percent have fewer than five employees), less than 10 years old, and home-grown. The industry owes its local origins to scholars at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and BYU, which introduced strong computer science curricula in the early 1970s.
In 1979, a BYU professor founded WordPerfect, now the maker of the top-selling word-processing program. Four years later, another BYU expert started Novell, a leading producer of computer-networking software. This summer, Novell bought WordPerfect, creating a company that employs 8,500 people with sales projected to soon top $1.5 billion.
While most computer industry workers are native Utahans who don't want to leave, up to 20 percent are now outside recruits like Skidmore, who come for jobs as well as a better quality of life.
``We'll be spending less time at home and more in national parks,'' says Skidmore's wife, Sharlene, a Long Island, N.Y., native during a recent house-hunting trip to Provo.
Still, the influx of Californians and other outsiders has led to cultural tensions with Utah's clean-cut Mormon population, and social segregation between Mor- mons and non-Mormons persists, says John McCormick, a history professor at Salt Lake Community College.
For example, when computer engineer Lenley Hensarling transferred to Provo for Novell, he chose to live in Park City, a traditionally non-Mormon mining town and ski resort 45 minutes north of Provo.
``We thought it would be more heterogeneous and cosmopolitan,'' Mr. Hensarling says.
Likewise, many Utah natives resent the rising prices, urban growth pains, and non-Mormon values brought by outsiders and rapid economic development.
``I personally don't want everyone descending on Utah,'' says Mary Lou Gottschall of the Utah Heritage Foundation. ``I love the diversity, but the traffic is horrendous and we're already behind on our freeways.''
Richard Bradford, head of the Utah Valley Economic Development Association, agrees. ``We want to prevent this from becoming another big, dirty metropolitan area like Los Angeles,'' he says. ``We have a lifestyle we want to preserve.''