I have always been optimistic about Idaho and its future. Several years ago an Idaho journalist wrote a piece about being so depressed about living in Idaho that he was moving to another state. I was incensed and wrote a strong rebuttal that was picked up by several papers and brought me an offer from a news syndicate to begin writing for them. An offer I declined.
But now I am seeing some disturbing statistics that are leaving me wondering whether my optimism is justifiable.
The fact that we lead the nation in the percentage of workers receiving the minimum wage is troubling. In 2011, 5 percent of all of our workers were in minimum wage jobs. By 2012 the number had grown to 7.7 percent. By way of comparison, the rate for Montana is 1.5 percent, Oregon 1.1 percent and Washington 1.7 percent.
In Idaho we make it more attractive for recruiting employers that pay the minimum wage by keeping our minimum wage well below that of our neighboring states. Idaho's minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Montana is $7.80, Oregon, $8.95, Nevada $8.25 and Washington $9.19.
Idaho's median wage - half earn more and half earn less - is $18.48 per hour, which is 84 percent of the national average. Our statewide average wage places us in 45th place nationally.
Idaho's population has grown significantly in recent decades. Much of that has come from people migrating to Idaho in search of better jobs and, for some, an improved quality of life. But now we are seeing some rather startling new statistics concerning people leaving Idaho. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, 57,270 members of the state's workforce left in 2012. Nearly every age group younger than 55 experienced a decline, with those in the 25-to-29 category declining both as part of the labor force and part of the overall population.
In 2008, Idaho had 10,500 people with doctoral degrees. Since then, 700 of those have left, followed by 2,400 with master's degrees, 10,300 with bachelor's degrees and 3,600 with associate degrees. These are 27,500 of Idaho's best-educated citizens who no longer live here.
All of this comes at a time when the State Board of Education has announced its intent to have 60 percent of Idahoans age 25-34 hold a college degree or postsecondary certificate within the next seven years. Only three states have a lower percentage of their high school graduates going on to college than Idaho. A cynic might note that with fewer Idahoans ages 25 to 34, it might be easier to meet that goal.
A major concern for Idaho, with the high number of young, educated people leaving the state, needs to be whether that trend extends to Idaho's best and brightest high school graduates also leaving the state to attend college. Attracting businesses to Idaho that require a skilled workforce and that pay relatively high wages could prove to be a challenge under these circumstances.
However, there are job opportunities out there. Just consider two recent Idaho job fairs. Eight businesses recently grouped together to hold an event in Boise. That is the good news. These businesses are hiring. The other part of the story is that the eight businesses run call centers paying wages well below even Idaho's median wage.
And then there was the recent job fair in Idaho Falls to recruit employees for jobs paying $64,000 a year with health insurance, a 401(k), three weeks' paid vacation and profit sharing. The job fair was in Idaho Falls, but the jobs were all in North Dakota.
Idaho is in the midst of some challenging times. And I'm having difficulty seeing the silver lining. Minimum wage jobs and an unskilled workforce are a poor mix when it comes to preparing for a prosperous future.
Marty Peterson is director of James A. and Louise McClure Center for Public Policy Research.