Now, with Idaho's economy perking up, the state Department of Labor says Idaho faces a new problem: There may not be enough workers to fuel a robust recovery.
A confluence of demographic trends - a rising number of older residents not in the workforce, and a decline in workers ages 25-29 - threaten to mute the state's comeback.
"We may not flourish in the recovery," says Bob Uhlenkott, the department's chief research officer.
Labor officials say their projections need more study. What they know so far is pieced together from a variety of economic and demographic resources.
AGING POPULATION MAY DRIVE ECONOMY
Most striking is the increase in older people coming to Idaho to finish their careers or retire.The number of Idahoans age 65 or older is expected to grow 42 percent to 303,000 by 2022, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.
Those people won't likely be the ones igniting an entrepreneurial spirit by starting Idaho's next big business in their garage, Uhlenkott says.
Moreover, retirees tend to nurse their nest eggs and become consumers of services such as dry cleaning and landscaping, which would drive increases in largely low-paying jobs, Uhlenkott says.
Services accounted for three-fourths of Idaho's nonfarm jobs in 2012. Service jobs include everyone from bus boys to health professionals. Their average annual wage was $33,000. By contrast, average pay in manufacturing was $44,000.
A BRAIN AND WORKER DRAIN
Idaho's population expansion in the past two decades came largely from people moving to the state from somewhere else. They bought houses, took jobs, bought goods and services.
By the economic boom's peak in 2006, the number of people coming to Idaho outpaced the number leaving by 25,000 per year. Since then, increases have slowed. In 2012, the net increase was less than 10,000.
Migration affects the labor pool, says Alivia Metts, a Department of Labor regional economist in Coeur d'Alene. Her study on outmigration shows 4,800 Idahoans ages 25-29 - a sweet spot in the labor pool, because these workers have their most productive years ahead of them - left the state between 2008 and 2011. Their numbers in the workforce declined from 88,179 to 82,637, or 6.3 percent.
Between 2009 and 2011, nearly 7 percent of Idahoans with doctoral degrees, 5 percent with master's degrees and 6 percent with bachelor's degrees - 13,400 people in all - left Idaho.
Metts' study found that many of those who left the state ended up in oil fields in North Dakota and in the Tri-Cities area of eastern Washington, where construction is fueled by the work at the federal Hanford Nuclear Reservation.
The job sectors hardest hit were restaurants and food services, construction, colleges and universities, elementary and secondary schools and hospitals, she says.
"Half of our jobs statewide [were] lost in construction," Metts says. "Obviously those people have gone to other places. They are moving where the work is."
HOUSEHOLDS WITH NO JOBS
Idaho leads the country in the growth of households where adults aren't working or looking for work. That is another ominous sign of the emergence of a less-than-adequate workforce, state officials say.
Labor officials don't know what percentage of those people are retired and what percentage are discouraged workers, who have given up looking for a job.
Not everyone sees the numbers as a problem.
Many of those people may come back into the workforce if jobs become plentiful or wages increase in a tight labor market, says Brian Greber, director of Boise State University's Center for Business Research and Economic Development.
Yet Idaho's workforce - those working or looking for work - has fluctuated by only a few hundred over the past several months as job opportunities increase, says Bob Fick, Idaho Department of Labor spokesman.
Job growth has been strong for several months, in some months the number of jobs has risen by 10,000 over the same month a year ago. Such growth typically is followed by an increase in the labor force as people rejoin the ranks of those looking for work. But that has not happened, Fick says.
LABOR SHORTAGE MAY ALREADY BE HERE
David Turnbull, owner of Brighton Corp., a Boise home and commercial-building construction company, endured a slow residential construction market through the recession. Now business is picking up.
Turnbull won't say how many houses he is building, but says he is on track this year to double the number he was working on in prerecession 2005.
Treasure Valley numbers show that residential construction levels are nearly back to prerecession highs, fueled by the reluctance or inability of homeowners to put their homes on the market at still-depressed prices. Some homeowners still owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
In 2012, Meridian issued more than 1,000 residential construction permits for the first time since 2006. In Boise, single-family residential construction permits reached 568, just 20 short of the number issued in 2006.
At the same time, the number of construction workers has plummeted from 52,000 in 2008 to 31,200 in 2012.
Where did they all go?
"Some went to North Dakota or, if they were in construction before, they had to find another career," Turnbull says.
He is building homes in the Paramount subdivision off Meridian Road and is subcontracting tasks such as framing and concrete work.
So far, Turnbull has been able to find workers to match his demand. But he isn't seeing a lot of out-of-work construction people applying for every job. As the housing market improves, and construction expands, he worries that a gap may develop.
The worker shortage "is right now," he says.
Construction isn't the only sector feeling the strain. Idaho's high-tech industry has long complained that it lacks the software engineers to keep up with demand, says Jay Larsen, Idaho Technology Council president.
In 2012, the Idaho Department of Labor said nearly 1,000 jobs for software developers were available. Boise State University has graduated just 20 to 25 software engineers a year.
The university is using $700,000 from the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission to increase faculty and begin pumping out more graduates. IGEM, an economic-development program promoted by the council and approved by the Legislature last year, received $5 million this fiscal year and will get another $5 million in 2013-14.
But if the economy kicks into high gear first, tech companies will scramble even more to find people, Larsen says.
Despite these shortages, Turnbull is optimistic. He believes the shortages will eventually balance themselves out and workers will eventually show up to meet demand.
One way that could happen, Greber says, is higher pay. Idaho is among the lowest-paying states in the country. Its average wage, adjusted for inflation, has grown only 3.4 percent over the past 36 years.
A shortage of workers could force businesses to dig deeper to find money to attract the workers they need, Greber says.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408 Twitter: @IDS_BillRobert