Our View, Idaho's economy: Education, wages inexorably intertwined

April 24, 2013 

At long last, Idaho is No. 1 in something and it has nothing to do with Boise State’s football team.

Idaho has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in percentage of workers earning the minimum wage of $7.25 — a standing that Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer and others are trying to erase. The fact that Idaho is at 7.7 percent (only three other states are above 7 percent) should serve as a call to arms for evaluating why the percentage is so high and finding solutions.

It should come as no surprise that education holds the key to higher-paying jobs. The challenge is developing an education system and policies, both on the secondary and post-secondary levels, that can better serve employment needs.

Andy Smarick, a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, put it well in a recent visit with the Statesman’s editorial board.

“You can’t have a strategy for economic development without a strategy for education,” he said.

Sayer agrees with those comments, and adds some good points of his own.

“We have to improve the connection between industry and higher education and get a direct relationship to what industries need and the curriculum that is being taught,” he said.

In other words, universities need to do a better job supplying employers with the workers they need. Community colleges, as Sayer puts it, “are flat-out creating results.” Thanks largely to the efforts of College of Southern Idaho, a trained work force was in place when Chobani opened its yogurt plant late last year.

“It comes down to supply and demand,” Sayer said. “If industries demand a certain skill set, they are willing to pay for that. If we supply it, then it will help compute to higher wages.”

What Sayer says sounds simple, but the challenges are mammoth as Idaho continues to transition from mostly natural-resource industries. In education, Idaho’s problems go beyond money. Smarick said Idaho ranks 46th in the number of high school students going on to college. Only 1 in 10 Idaho freshmen graduate from college.

There are other built-in reasons why Idaho percentage of minimum-wage workers is at 7.7 percent. The high number of workers in agriculture, and the increase in tourism and service-related jobs ensures a high percentage. Idaho also is largely a rural state, where unemployment often is high and wages are low.

Sayer said raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour is no panacea in Idaho’s rural communities, where meeting the threshhold of $7.25 is enough of a challenge. Understandably, there is some anxiety in rural areas over President Barack Obama’s call to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Idaho’s economic future should not hinge on a government edict to raise wages. Success depends on an education system that better meets the state’s workforce needs.

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