Idaho’s race against stagnation: Task force releases plan to grow state’s workforce

Sep 4th, 2017 | By | Category: Business news

By Sarah Glenn/For the Journal

LaborSupply Graph


BOISE – Idaho’s economy has a problem: companies want to both relocate and grow here, but can’t find the right skilled employees. Nurses sprint from one room to another, doing the work of two. Tech pioneers envision cutting-edge campuses, but the talent isn’t around. The department of labor projects that by 2022, Idaho’s workforce will be short at least 49,000 workers in these, and other, industries. And although the Gem State’s population is booming, most people are coming here to retire rather than build careers. The Department of Labor says Idaho’s labor force participation rate dropped to 63.4 percent, the lowest it’s been since July 1976. The availability of skilled labor has become the No. 2 factor in site decisions following highway accessibility, according to the latest survey of company executives by Area Development magazine.

Dr. David Hill“This is a clear and present danger,” said David Hill, who serves on the Idaho State Board of Education, is a retired senior executive at Idaho National Laboratory and co-chair of the Governor’s Workforce Development Task Force.

The task force released its final report in July.

“We wanted our findings to carry a sense of urgency,” Hill said. “We need to move strongly and quickly on this issue. Other states have been making strong moves on workforce development for 10 years now, including most of our neighboring states.”

In a spattering of meetings spread over six months, 17 people on the task force put their heads together and came up with a 28-page solution. The report is detailed, but has one overarching first step: give the existing Workforce Development Council (WDC) some real teeth.

With Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s blessing, the state hopes to hire a Workforce Development Council executive director and other relevant staff. The report is also asking to prioritize a $2.5 million appropriation out of the state’s general fund to tackle a hefty to-do list.

With a bolstered budget and a new staff, the WDC will work through a nine-part to-do list.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter speaks i front of area business leaders after touring the Mountain View Event Center in Pocatello prior to its completion.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter speaks in front of area business leaders after touring the Mountain View Event Center in Pocatello prior to its completion.

“The business leaders, education experts, legislators and staff who contributed their time and energies to this effort deserve our thanks for thoroughly examining our existing programs and processes, pulling together information on best practices from around the nation, and developing a game plan for real progress,”  Gov. Otter said. “We already are moving forward on these recommendations, but we will need the continuing commitment of everyone involved to make the changes necessary for sustaining Idaho’s economic growth.”

As a result of the Task Force’s work, the state government is suggesting that the WDC: Maximize the effectiveness of the Workforce Development Training Fund to address gaps and, second, direct federal workforce investments to meet industry needs.

The Task Force identified four major areas of focus for its research and recommendations: industry, education and government partnerships; capacity building; career advising; and communications. The nine recommendations grew from those four major focus areas.

  • Increase the role and responsibilities of an industry-driven Workforce Development Council to champion the development and implementation of a statewide, strategic workforce development plan that meets industries’ needs today and tomorrow.
  • Establish a sustainable funding mechanism for the Workforce Development Training Fund.
  • Develop and implement a comprehensive statewide public engagement initiative utilizing technology and other engagement strategies to increase awareness of career opportunities for all Idahoans.
  • Idaho’s K-through-Career education system should value and support all pathways for students to achieve education, training and workforce skills that align to their career aspirations.
  • Enhance support for Idaho’s six Workforce Training Centers and the individuals they serve with short-term, industry-focused training.
  • Ensure that there is equity and access for all Idaho students to occupational pathways by establishing stronger requirements for the secondary education system in deploying college and career advising.
  • Incentivize Idaho school districts to incorporate workforce readiness skills throughout secondary curricula.
  • Continue the development of apprenticeship programs throughout the state.
  • Strengthen Idaho’s talent pipeline by expanding CTE (career and technical education) programs at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

“Because there is a sense of urgency around this, we tried to make this report as punchy and pointed as possible,” Hill said. “At the same time, we tried hard to provide recommendations that are not so grandiose as to be impossible to achieve.”

Hill added that the task force also tried to give recommendations in such a way that the different state agencies asked to participate have latitude in how they implement things.

Each of these nine broad directives have been broken down into short and long-term steps and each little item has an entity responsible for it – be it the state government or a local university. The task force hopes the short-term steps can be accomplished in the next fiscal year.

Two groups to blame for Idaho’s economic stagnation: the Old and the Young

Idaho’s population is aging faster than the nation’s according to June estimates by the Census Bureau. Idaho seniors – people age 65 and older – increased by 30 percent from mid-2010 to mid-2016 compared with 22 percent for the nation. This group – which includes the oldest four years of the baby boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) – accounts for 15 percent of the state’s population.

From an Idaho Department of Labor Press Release

From an Idaho Department of Labor Press Release

And although Idaho’s general population continues to grow, the 2016 data shows that the 65 and older age group grew nearly 5 percent from mid-2015. Essentially, people in Idaho are aging and retiring faster than young workers can replace them.

Bannock County experienced the largest numeric loss in the 20 to 39 age group, according to the report. Bannock County hemorrhaged more 100 Millennials from its workforce. Idaho and Lemhi counties had the largest decrease in 40- to 64-year-olds with more than 100. No counties experienced a loss in the 65-and-older age group.

At the same time, relatively few young people in Idaho have post-secondary training or advanced degrees. As of 2015, less than half (42 percent) of  Idahoans between the ages of 25 and 34 attained a post-secondary credential, including certificates and degrees.

This begs the question, do most jobs require a formal education? The short answer is, yes. By 2020, the U.S. Department of Labor projects that nearly 67 percent of jobs in the United States will require some post-secondary training or education beyond high school.

NYTimes: A new kind of tech job emphasizes skills, not college degree

“You can’t bring the jobs if you don’t have the workforce,” Hill said. “One always comes first. … and technical skills are going to be increasingly important.”

In its recommendations, the task force doubled down on the Department of Education’s previously set goal – get 60 percent of Idahoans under the age of 34 to pursue post-secondary education.

“The State Board of Education has set the 60 percent goal and I believe it is often misinterpreted,” Hill said. “There is an assumption that we are always talking about a four-year degree. However, technical skills are increasingly important.”

Read more about the State Board of Education’s

Complete College Idaho Plan here. 

As such, the the task force suggested expanding the definition of post-secondary education to include certificates as well. These could include anything from a welding certificate to a Java coding certificate.

The task force identified another problem with Idaho’s youth: they need to grow up and behave professionally.

According to the report, “the Task Force listened to industry representatives about workforce challenges they face within their respective companies and across their industries. Overwhelmingly, industry members expressed challenges with a lack of qualified candidates, citing a lack of professional skills (i.e., personal appearance, time management, communication and collaboration skills, adaptability).”

Soft Skills Graphic


Finally, another culprit the task force identified was the slow speed in which training and educational programs are delivered currently versus the speed at which industry needs trained individuals.

The WDC has a hefty job ahead

Since its inception in 1996, the Workforce Development Council has provided strategic leadership and oversight of Idaho’s workforce development system. However, that system is, according to the Task Force’s report, akin to herding cats. The infrastructure and entities exist that can help solve Idaho’s workforce challenges. However, they are disjointed and decentralized.

“Partnerships between employers, educational institutions, and workforce and economic development groups exist to try to solve these workforce issues, but many of these efforts take place independently throughout the state,” the Task Force’s report says. “Few partnerships transcend geographical, institutional and agency boundaries. Many programs rely on federal funding which is inherently limited. Industry members are asked to participate in these disconnected efforts, resulting in fatigue and disengagement. Taken together, these workforce efforts concentrate on meeting immediate needs and miss out developing and implementing a comprehensive strategy that will meet the needs of industry today and tomorrow.”
Into this melee comes the Workforce Development Council.

On the Task Force’s summary of recommendations, the first item is:

“Increase the role and responsibilities of an industry-driven Workforce Development Council to champion the development and implementation of a statewide, strategic workforce development plan that meets industries’ needs today and tomorrow.”

More information on the council, it’s mandate and its meetings can be found at

A sampling of the to-do list

The task force’s final report breaks down tasks into long-term and short-term to-do lists, built around its nine guiding principles.

Identifying funding and installing leadership is task no. 1. However, as time rolls on, the task force has a few more things they’d like to get done – including a major public information campaign. In order to do that, the legislature will need to change some rules regarding how workforce development funds can be used – currently they can not be used for advertising or marketing-like activities.

Every state agency dealing with education will be asked to coordinate existing resources that could be directed to this effort.

“At a minimum,” the report says “existing resources should be accessible through a single sign on portal until a more comprehensive platform is available.”

That more comprehensive platform will eventually provide youth a single-source, comprehensive place for career and education planning.

The task force’s report also suggests a small shakeup to the state’s education goals. In 2010, the State Board of Education set a lofty goal: get 60 percent of Idaho’s workforce ages 25 to 34 equipped with post-high school certificates or degrees by 2020. When the goal was first created in 2010, Idaho’s rate was 38 percent. Since then, it has crept up just 4 percentage points to about 42 percent.

However, the task force suggests that short-term industry certifications should now be included in the definition of “post-secondary credential” with respect to Idaho’s 60 percent goal. These short-term certifications number in the hundreds and are as diverse as the industries they can be applied to. Common certificate fields of study include health care, cosmetology, auto mechanics, and computer and information services, according to a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. According to U.S. News and World Report, postsecondary certificates are awarded by educational institutions, but usually do not take as long to earn as a degree. Certificates can take anywhere from a few months to several years to complete, depending on the program.

Other short-term initiatives will focus on getting college and technical schools to engage better with middle school students. The task force also suggests developing a scholarship program for short-term training, tied to in-demand occupations, for adult Idaho workers to improve their career opportunities.

They also ask that Idaho’s six technical colleges expand or start in-demand programs.

“If I have any disappointment with this report it is that we did not convey the urgency effectively enough,” Hill said. “It is easy to look at the unemployment rate and say we are fine. However, our population is aging. We need to recognize that we are in a race and we are starting from behind.”

The task force’s full report is available here.

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