Ken Edmunds first stepped into his director’s office at the Idaho Department of Labor headquarters in Boise in November. He scanned the space. It would be a meeting place for powerful businesspeople and politicians. It would be his new professional home.
He looked at the furniture. It had pink and mauve stripes. The fabric was torn. It looked as if it was purchased in 1987. It was.
“I thought it was a joke,” Edmunds said. “I’m supposed to bring people in here and convince them to come to Idaho? In this environment? It was a little humorous when I realized that this was actually my office.”
Edmunds had accepted Gov. Butch Otter’s appointment to lead one of the state’s largest departments after Roger Madsen, who had held the job since 1995, stepped down Nov. 15.
Edmunds has spruced the place up. He replaced the old furniture with dark, contemporary chairs, a sofa and wood tables. He ordered a flat-screen TV with wireless and teleconferencing capabilities. He spent nearly all of the $10,000 he was allotted for improvements in furniture and technology.
Department spokesman Bob Fick said the famously stingy Madsen didn’t make any office improvements during his 18-year tenure. The old chairs sagged nearly to the floor when sat upon.
“I don’t know if he even noticed it,” Edmunds said.
Now that he’s settled in, Edmunds has turned his attention to running a department and trying to improve on Idaho’s dead-last national performance in average wages, per-capita income and recent wage increases.
“There’s more work to be done than I realized,” Edmunds said. “The reason I came on board was to try to connect education, labor and commerce. It will probably occupy all my time for the next couple months to get on top of how the organization functions and what we need to do to change it.”
Edmunds said he’s pleased that the state’s falling unemployment rate will result in Idaho businesses paying $75 million less in unemployment insurance taxes for 2013 than for 2012. However, that drop means a 40 percent reduction in funds to the Workforce Development Training Fund, which Edmunds called the state’s strongest business-recruiting tool.
A combined $7 million in training grants helped attract Chobani and Clif Bar plants to Twin Falls in the last two years. Otter touts those as success stories, though the state has also doled out millions to companies that failed shortly after.
Edmunds said he plans to review the fund to find more effective ways to select companies that will have staying power.
“We need to find a way to recognize merit,” he said.
Edmunds graduated from Brigham Young University with a master’s degree in accounting. He ran his Twin Falls real estate and consulting business for the past 25 years. He stepped down from his position on the State Board of Education, which he held since 2008, to accept the Labor directorship.
Zach Kyle: 377-6464,Twitter: @IDS_zachkyle