Recently, Ethan Mansfield unearthed a 2007 photo showing several people kicking back at hot springs near Lowman. The group, including Mansfield, had just graduated from Boise High School. Fifteen grinning grads wearing swimsuits crowded into the frame.
Today, Mansfield is one of just two living in Idaho.
He returned to Boise after graduating from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. Now a regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor, Mansfield said he looks at his bright and talented classmates in the photo who left Idaho and cringes at the implications for his state’s economy.
“It’s a little sobering,” he said. “I get a little depressed living in Idaho sometimes, and this doesn’t help.”
The Idaho exodus spans beyond Mansfield’s class. Statewide, college-educated millennials — those born between 1980 and 2000 — are jumping to economic hubs such as San Francisco, Seattle and Salt Lake City for higher pay and the big-city amenities that studies say attract young professionals.
The flight of the millennials is not one-way. Some data show that more 20- and 30-something adults are coming to Idaho than leaving, and other data show that Idaho is actually gaining college-educated people from elsewhere. But the data do not sort the college-educated in-migrants by age. Economists believe many of them may be retirees or are approaching retirement age.
Some of those leaving, such as Boise native Andrew Wilburn, 28, move for jobs better suited for their level of training.
Wilburn, who holds a master’s degree in higher education and student affairs, moved to Wyoming last month for job at Laramie County Community College. He had previously left a job working an entry-level position in the admissions office at the College of Idaho to search for to a higher-paying one. The Wyoming job pays more than 50 percent more, he said.
Wilburn, who graduated from Boise High a year before Mansfield, said most of his high school friends have already left Idaho.
“People want to stay here, but there aren’t many options or much industry available in Idaho,” he said.
The millennial exodus is forcing government officials to ask uncomfortable questions. In January, Idaho Department of Labor Director Ken Edmunds told legislators that retaining Idaho talent should become a core economic-development strategy. He said the state is losing half of its college graduates within four years of graduation. “That’s a problem,” he said.
“We’ve been avoiding this issue for a long time, because our employers don’t like to hear it: We don’t pay well,” Edmunds said.
Jillian Moroney, 28, said she would love to stay in Boise, where she enjoys easy access to rock climbing, backpacking and her other favorite outdoor activities. But Moroney, an Idaho Falls native who earned a Ph.D. in environmental science from the University of Idaho, doubts she will find an in-state job after her post-doctorate position ends in July.
She is looking at positions in Montana, Washington and Oregon.
“I’d love to stay, but Idaho doesn’t have a ton of higher-level jobs,” Moroney said.
44th Idaho’s rank among states and Washington, D.C., for retaining adults born in the state.
Idaho doesn’t produce enough highly educated professionals that it can shrug off losses such as Wilburn and Moroney, Mansfield said. In King County in Washington, home of the robust Seattle economy, more than half of millennials hold college degrees. In Idaho, only 30 percent hold an associate’s degree or higher. Other enviable economies, such as Denver and Minneapolis, also have better-educated workers, Mansfield said.
“These places are economic hubs,” Mansfield said. “[An educated populace] isn’t the sole indicator of economic dynamism, but we need to import educated talent if we hope to reach that kind of production in our economy.”
Courtney Allen, 26, graduated from Boise High before graduating from Boise State University in 2012 with a degree in graphic design. She said she could have continued working in her field in Boise but moved to Bangkok, Thailand, a year ago to start a travel company, Courting Adventures, that takes small tour groups around Asia.
Allen’s love of travel played into her decision to leave Idaho, but she also felt living in Bangkok — with a population greater than 8 million — would expand her opportunities.
“I love Boise, but Boise is a work in progress,” she said. “Things are just starting to ramp up, particularly in the tech industry. I wanted to move to a bigger city where I could make valuable connections and advance my career.”
A lot of (my friends) want big-city living... They want to be adults. They want to work for a startup, making $60, 70, 80K a year and doing cool things.
Andrew Wilburn, outgoing Idaho millennial
Moroney earned her bachelor’s degree at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., before returning to the U of I for her master’s and doctorate. She said the difference in attitudes among her friends at each university were stark.
“The majority of friends I went to school with in Washington wanted to stay in Washington,” Moroney said. “The majority of students I went to school with in Idaho accepted positions in different states, positions they were happy to accept.”
Idaho has a lower cost of living than most larger cities, and Boise has a growing Downtown and outdoors access that attract millennials like Moroney and Wilburn, Mansfield said. Idaho cannot realistically match high wages paid in larger cities for positions requiring college degrees. But closing the wage gaps in industries such as technology, health care and financial services would go a long way to keeping millennials here, he said.
“If we could increase wages — and not even to Seattle levels — kids in the school system now looking at options would see that Idaho has some economic opportunity for a good quality of life and for economic advancement,” he said.
Allen said her ambivalence about Boise extends beyond economics. Allen, who is black, felt more at home in Atlanta, where she lived until moving to Boise as a teenager. She said her picture appeared on Boise State catalogs and banners, which she saw as the university’s effort to promote diversity in its student body. This year, the student body is 2 percent black.
“I’m attracted to vibrant, multicultural cities,” she said. “There’s not much in Boise in regards to diversity.”
Moroney also said Idaho’s conservative politics turned off many of her University of Idaho friends.
“It’s frustrating that the Legislature always questions why people leave, but then they ruin things we care about: higher education, women’s rights, a living wage, affordable health care, LGBT rights, the environment,” Moroney said. “That’s a hostile environment to come in as a young person if you want to see change.”
Idaho can do better, but not if everybody who cares about these issues leaves. That’s part of why I want to stay.
Jillian Moroney, Idaho millennial
WHO IS MOVING HERE?
In-migration may be replacing the educated millennials leaving Idaho. About 3,500 more millennials ages 21 to 30 moved into Idaho than left in 2014, according to Census data compiled by Mansfield, including 1,900 from California. Idaho also gained about 5,000 people from migration in the 31- to 40-year-old age bracket, which includes older millennials.
Idaho also had a net gain of about 2,000 incoming residents with an associate’s degree or higher, according to the Census. Idaho ranks 18th among states for migration of educated residents, Mansfield said.
However, the data on in-migrants with degrees does not specify the incoming residents’ ages. A large chunk of those degrees could be held by the roughly 13,000 people ages 51 and older who moved to Idaho in 2014, Mansfield said.
While highly educated workers approaching retirement boost Idaho’s economy, they are less likely than millennials to inject economy-changing ideas into the state, Mansfield said.
Some of those incoming college degrees are likely held by retirees, which tend to increase demand for low-wage service jobs. Retirees also increase demand for high-paying health care jobs.
The new Idahoans are fueling growth, he said.
“Every state wants to see an influx of highly educated people flooding into their state,” Mansfield said. “Idaho is gaining people with bachelor’s degrees from other states. That’s better than a lot of other states can say.”
Idaho has more net in-migration of people with bachelor’s degrees than Wyoming and Utah do, but less than Colorado, Oregon and Washington. Idaho Department of Labor
While the data don’t say why young people are moving to Idaho, Mansfield suspects the state is making a bad trade.
“It’s nothing we can prove yet, but I'm concerned that we're exchanging local talent we've produced with bachelor’s degrees or higher for people with high school diplomas or less,” he said.
Idaho’s growing economy needs more young professionals to avoid stagnation regardless of their states of origin, Mansfield said.
There’s also a sentimental argument for retaining Idaho’s homegrown talent, Mansfield said. The 15 Boise High grads in his hot springs photo taken in 2007 included some of the top students in the class.
“They are people who grew up in community. They are the ones who will make the most positive change in Idaho,” he said. “Part of their potential stems from fact they have a vested interest in Idaho and seeing Idaho do well.”