Desperate Idaho manufacturers raise wages, but skills gap keeps job seekers on the hunt

How to interview at a job fair

Five people conducting interviews at the Career Fair held on Thursday, March 24 at the USCB Hilton Head Gateway Campus give a few tips on things to do -- and not to do -- when applying for a job.
Up Next
Five people conducting interviews at the Career Fair held on Thursday, March 24 at the USCB Hilton Head Gateway Campus give a few tips on things to do -- and not to do -- when applying for a job.

The recruiters at the manufacturing job expo were getting territorial.

They scanned the crowd of the Idaho Center in Nampa, attempting to make sustained eye contact with passers-by. They edged business cards to the front of tables. A glance from a potential applicant was enough to signal interest. They pounced.

We have several positions open at the moment, they told candidates. Have we mentioned our excellent benefits? And, here, make sure you get a chance to try our product.

With the economy roaring, manufacturers looking to grow are getting desperate for candidates, with some expanding benefits or raising wages to compete. Idaho’s 2.7 percent unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in the last 10 years.

But some job seekers say they still don’t feel confident about finding a job.

Randy Weeks was one of the candidates at the job fair Oct. 17. At the end of the year, Weeks will lose his job of 18 years at Micron Technology Inc., which for the past year has been phasing out a few hundred of its last Boise manufacturing jobs and moving the work to Taiwan. He said he is not sure that he will find a position that pays what he earns as a metrology (measuring) equipment engineer.

“If you settled for a job, you probably could find one pretty quick,” Weeks said. “Trying to find the right job is harder.”

Disconnects between what employers need and what employees want — or have the skills to do — are increasingly common in the Treasure Valley’s roaring economy, especially in manufacturing. Jobs go begging whether they’re for high-paying, specialty work (Micron alone was advertising for more than 270 openings in Boise last week, mostly for engineers) or lower-skill production-line or warehouse jobs.

Employment in Idaho’s manufacturing sector grew from 53,300 jobs in September 2010 to 71,100 to September 2018, according to the Idaho Department of Labor.

An employee at VersaBuilt studies his computer. The Boise robotics company is competing for graduates of the College of Western Idaho but is hoping to expand its talent pipeline. Provided by VersaBuilt

Sam Wolkenhauer, regional economist for the department, says manufacturing wages rose 30 percent between 2010 and 2017 as a worker shortage worsened. The average overall weekly wage in Ada County rose 5.1 percent to $943 from the first quarter of 2017 to the first quarter of this year, according to the department.

And as more companies move to the valley, so do workers. Jose DeLeon, a senior workforce consultant with the department, says employers relocating to the Treasure Valley from other states are bringing more and more of their current employees with them.

“We have several companies that have said, ‘We’re going to offer our current employees a chance to relocate with us to Idaho, and more are taking up their offer than was anticipated,’” he says.

For some manufacturing firms, the competitive job market has made it hard to find employees who will stick around, DeLeon says.

“Employers are engaging their workforce more, because they’re having trouble with retention,” he says. “We’re losing people left and right, because when they do the same thing over and over again, they burn out very quickly.”

Boise robotics company VersaBuilt is competing with other manufacturing companies in the area for graduates of the College of Western Idaho’s machining program. Provided by VersaBuilt

“Now companies are looking to jump in and help with child care, they’re helping with medical benefits, they’re looking to bring that retention rate down to a manageable level. There’s always going to be attrition, but right now it’s critical. With such a low unemployment rate, it’s very difficult to replace people that leave.”

Consider Amalgamated Sugar. It has increased entry-level wages from $11.50 to $14.50 an hour, says Martha Luna, a human resources manager who took part in the job fair. But that hasn’t drawn enough candidates, so the Nampa sugar-beet factory, which is in the midst of its annual harvest season, launched an employee referral program.

“We’re having difficulty because a lot of the hiring we do is seasonal, and we have to compete with full-time positions,” she says.

Many companies are also competing for the same recent graduates. Brian Havey, director of sales at VersaBuilt, a Boise robotics maker, says his company usually hires graduates from the machining program at the College of Western Idaho. But these days, competition over those graduates is fierce. He declined to say what VersaBuilt pays the graduates.

“We’re not going to be able to get as many of those graduates as we’re probably going to need,” he says. “We really are trying to get more strategic and figure out new ways to keep that talent pipeline going.”

Do your research. Take a look at the company's website. Practice with friends and family. These simple guidelines and more are outlined in this Department of Labor video on job interviewing strategies.

Some companies are looking to establish that talent pipeline by working with local high schools.

Last year, McCain Foods piloted a new two-year apprenticeship program in Cassia and Minidoka County School Districts under direction of the state Department of Labor. During the school year, students take classes in the morning to learn technical skills, and in the summer work at McCain Foods’ frozen-potato products plant in Burley. Melissa Aston, the plant’s HR manager, says she hopes to hire some of the graduates. McCain is spending $200 million to expand the Burley plant and add 180 jobs.

“In order to solve these problems we’re going to need cooperation and collaboration like that,” she said. Hourly positions range from $16.55 to $32.15 per hour.

They’re also reaching well beyond Idaho for candidates. This year, McCain for the first time hosted events on military bases in Seattle and San Diego, trying to encourage those retiring from duty to take jobs in Idaho.

Michelle Wagenaar, a recruiter for GoGo squeeZ, whose Nampa plant makes applesauce sold in pouches, is going a step further. As a veteran herself, she knows that spouses often get displaced from their jobs moving from base to base. She has started to partner with military bases Idaho to connect with potential candidates there.

Yet even job-seekers with engineering skills can struggle to find jobs locally.

At the job fair, Diego Juarez, who graduated from the University of Idaho in 2016 with a mechanical engineering degree, said he had gotten job offers from large companies outside of state — but nothing here at home. Some peers with similar degrees have resorted to taking jobs requiring only associate-degree skills, he said.

“It’s discouraging, because it shows that I do have what it takes,” he said.

Kate Talerico:; 208-377-6292; @k_talerico