Reports that come out of committees or work groups are not always the most scintillating reads.

What’s more, they’re usually packed with enough charts and graphs to make your eyes glaze over.  However, the final report released by the Governor’s Workforce Development Task Force last summer was illuminating – with some conclusions that should give pause to anyone worried about jobs and wages.  A paragraph on page 9 sums up the findings: 

“Colorado, Arizona, Oregon, Washington and Utah are already years ahead of Idaho in implementing workforce development policies. It is especially worrisome that several of Idaho’s border states are far ahead in their workforce development initiatives. If Idaho does not act now there is a real risk of the dual problem of both a) becoming a talent exporter and b) losing businesses to those states that have created the required workforce.”

The clarity of this statement – somewhat rare for such a document – is stunning. Essentially, it says that Idaho is not just heading in the wrong direction, it’s barreling down a pothole-filled highway at 100 m.p.h. toward the “wrong direction.”

Task forces come in all shapes and sizes.  Their primary purpose is to come up with a plan to fix a problem.  This necessarily entails a lot of talking.  However, once the plan comes together, it’s time to act. The governor, with the support of the legislature, created a Workforce Development Council. Members include industry representatives, educators, and partners.  Going forward, we must act to keep jobs and our children from leaving our state to find opportunities elsewhere. The council intends to create a framework for a variety of post-secondary certifications and programs for Idaho graduates and to re-train adults for the skills required for better paying jobs.

Now, the goals of the Workforce Development Council are to come up with a comprehensive plan to educate our children so they have the skills to get family-supporting jobs. There are plenty of opportunities beyond four-year college degrees for our kids and adults through community college programs, Career-Technical training and apprenticeships. Many of the STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) that go unfilled every year do not require four-year degrees. We must provide a variety of affordable options for our kids’ future without saddling them with mounds of student loan debt.

While we are inching closer to pre-recession public school investment levels, last year Idaho’s school districts continued to introduce record levels of “supplemental” levies just to keep the lights on.  Through this ad-hoc system of under-funding by the state and local school bonds/levies, districts with the highest property values will be able to raise more money to invest in their students.  It’s a system that creates winners and losers based on geography.              

Idaho continues to run a deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars when it comes to infrastructure maintenance and investment.  That’s important to note since the Task Force determined the top two factors businesses consider when deciding where to locate is (1) highway access and (2) availability of skilled labor. Considering the deficits we are running in those two areas alone, it’s no wonder Idaho’s future is “especially worrisome.”

Instead of investing in our public schools, highways and rural infrastructure, the majority literally passed legislation to send Idaho dollars out of state! According to the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, 81 percent of the corporate tax cut passed this year will go to out-of-state companies. If we’re shipping our dollars out of state, how long will it take for our families to do the same?

Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation. This will add pressure to infrastructure and education systems. According to the Department of Labor, Idaho will have 49,000 jobs by 2024 requiring a skilled workforce.  We must invest at home so we are not sending much needed investment dollars to other states. 

Beyond K-12, we will need to invest more in community colleges and universities to keep businesses here and provide our workforce with the jobs that will keep them in Idaho and prosper. Our next steps must ensure that Idaho has the necessary resources to transition our workforce into a better economy. If we don’t “walk the walk” when it comes to our plan, the future pressures on our towns and cities may prove to be too much.

Pulling Idaho out of the bottom will take innovators, business leaders, government, and you!

Sen. Michelle Stennett is the Democratic Leader in the Idaho State Senate.  She represents District 26 which includes Lincoln, Camas, Gooding and Blaine Counties.