WHEW … 1965 was a long time ago. Lyndon Johnson was president, the Great Society was alive and well, and I was in junior high school – with aspirations of becoming a Major League baseball player. I ended up playing in a few beer-drinking slo-pitch softball leagues in my adult life, but unfortunately, big-league scouts were looking elsewhere for talent.
Well, 1965 also was the year of the passage of the Higher Education Act, which was part of President Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. It opened education opportunities for students during the civil rights era, while providing resources to less developed colleges. The law still governs the administration of federal higher education programs.
The act has been reauthorized (and updated) several times, the last being 2008. Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch think the act is due for another facelift, saying the law has failed to keep up with the evolving needs of students. They say there is a broad bipartisan support for Congress to reauthorize the law to strengthen student access and workforce development.
In a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, they wrote: “Each week, we hear from Idaho’s employers about their need for more qualified, skilled workers to meet the demands of our state’s growing economy. Any reauthorization the HEA must include provisions that expand access to career and technical education and make federal higher education programs more flexible for the next generation of students. Ultimately, HEA reauthorization should empower states to tailor federal programs to better address the unique demands of the workforce.”
What the senators are saying is what I’ve been hearing for years – that high-paying jobs are available in Idaho, but there are not enough skilled workers to fill those positions.
In general, low wages in Idaho are the Achilles heel to an otherwise enviable employment picture in the Gem State. The “average” salary of $41,000 – with many Idahoans making far less – is not enough to keep up with rising housing costs. I didn’t think I’d see the day when $1,000 a month for rent was “cheap” and that housing prices in the $350,000 range would be considered “middle class,” but that’s what we’re seeing.
“Housing prices have grown 13 percent from September of 2018 to September of 2019. The national average over that time period is 4.8 percent,” said Jani Revier, director of the Idaho Department of Labor. “In some parts of the state, more than half of the income is going to housing costs.”
Overall, the employment situation in Idaho is a dreamland for political incumbents at the highest levels. Revier says Idaho’s unemployment rate is sitting at an historically low 2.9 percent, the fourth consecutive month of being under 3 percent. Over a longer period, Idaho has been under 3 percent unemployment for 23 months and under 4 percent for 43 months. Some economic experts will say that an unemployment rate of 4 percent should be considered as “full” employment.
Essentially, anyone in Idaho who wants a job – and isn’t too picky about what that job is – can find one. If you happen to be looking, the census bureau wants to hire 9,000 for work next year – which is a tall order considering there are not a lot of people seeking employment.
“One downside is, we’ve been below 3 percent and 4 percent for so long, it becomes difficult for employers to find workers,” she said. “In many cases, access to talent is a limiting factor on growth and expansion.”
As for the higher-paying gigs, Revier doesn’t have the magic answers to raising wages in Idaho. Making the higher education system more responsive to workforce demands, as Crapo and Risch suggest, certainly is worth exploring. But Idaho’s two-year schools already have programs that help meet immediate industrial needs. As for the universities, questions come to mind. Are students there to meet a workforce demand, or get a well-rounded educational experience?
“It’s up to individuals to decide what they want from their education,” Revier says. “I was trained to be an economist and I never used that degree. I have a pretty good job,”
Providing “more flexibility for generations of students” is a nice concept. Hopefully, we’ll hearing more specifics from our senators as reauthorization of the Higher Education Act advances in the process.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at email@example.com.