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Idaho wage growth shows signs of life

A job fair in 2013 at the Idaho Department of Labor office in Downtown Boise.
A job fair in 2013 at the Idaho Department of Labor office in Downtown Boise.

Idaho’s private-sector wages rose 4.2 percent in the second quarter of 2016 from one year earlier — twice the national average. In three years, Idaho wages have grown 9.4 percent. Not bad.

Our unemployment rate has been low for a while now, but pay has remained so far below the national average that we have been beating only Louisiana in the average-wage ranking. Now we top Montana, too, though not by much.

I hope to chalk up this little victory to supply and demand — a competition for labor that forces employers to pay workers more to fill jobs. Bob Uhlenkott, the state Labor Department’s chief research officer, says that is one likely cause, but it’s too early to say.

The wage improvement means we have risen to 48th among the 50 states come from actual unemployment taxes employers pay. It is solid data but not detailed. We learned, for example, that retail-sector wages rose a robust 10 percent from a year earlier, but we don’t know if clerks benefited, or stockers, or assistant managers. Other data should clarify that over time.

Idaho’s recovery from the Great Recession is now in its eighth year, as is the nation’s. The growth has been slow but steady for the past five years. Uhlenkott says this expansion has lasted longer than the 6 1/2 -year average expansion portion of a business cycle, where contraction follows growth. So this expansion is mature. One question is how much more mature it can get before senility sets in.

We all hope to forestall that day. We know of Donald Trump’s desire to spend big to improve airports and highways. We are all waiting to see what that entails (and how much it will add to our national debt, assuming Congress borrows the money instead of raising taxes). Another debt-financed stimulus might turbocharge the economy for a few years.

But there are no data pointing toward imminent recession. Growth persists. The Fed is finally confident enough in the economy that it is gradually raising interest rates.

And here in Idaho, the latest wage data are a sign of progress for people’s living standards. Raise a glass. It’s about time.

David Staats: 208-377-6417, @DavidStaats. This column appears in the January 18-February 14, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).