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Idaho is facing a scarcity of skilled workers--here's how three local programs are working to fill that gap

Posted at 2:18 PM, Apr 08, 2021

Idaho's unemployment numbers are going in a hopeful trend, according to new data from the Idaho Department of Labor.

The state's February unemployment rate was down to 3.3%, a drastic change from historic unemployment highs last spring. It's a hopeful trend, but according to the department of labor, the scarcity of skilled workers is growing more intense, despite the amount of unemployment created by the pandemic.

An economic expert's take on why the gap exists: a divergence of industries

Regional Economist Craig Shaul broke down the numbers and possible reasoning behind this shortage in a report for the Idaho Department of Labor.

According to Shaul, some industries have suffered more than others, but for people who are unemployed or thinking about a transition to a skilled job with more security and higher pay – or need funding support for training – it’s a job seeker’s market.

According to the report, the lack of skilled workers isn't a new problem.

"Idaho and the nation were experiencing one of the longest periods of expansion in history prior to 2020," Shaul writes. "Finding skilled workers available to fill jobs had been a challenge for several years. Demographics and population growth limited the number of new people available to work."

According to Shaul, industries were caught between demand for services and a lack of workers to complete those services. COVID-19 made that problem more intense.

"In addition to the tragic loss of life, the economic disruption caused in the United States by COVID-19 has not been the same for each industry," Shaul writes. "The large number of job losses during 2020 were most concentrated in hospitality and consumer services – industries the pandemic impacted the most. Occupations most affected by layoffs tended to pay lower-than-average wages, resulting in the emergence of what some economists have dubbed the K-Shaped Recession."

According to the report, workers earning less than $16 per hour have endured more unemployment during the pandemic than occupations paying more $16 or more.

U.S. Job Losses by Wage Tercile
This divergence in job losses by wage developed as the result of how different industries were affected by the pandemic over 2020. Construction and other services are examples of two Idaho industry sectors experiencing this phenomenon.

"This divergence in job losses by wage developed as the result of how different industries were affected by the pandemic over 2020," Shaul explains. "Construction and other services are examples of two Idaho industry sectors experiencing this phenomenon."

Year-to-Year Change in 2020 Idaho Jobs by Industry
Job estimates for Other Services declined by 23.4% from April 2019 to April 2020, while total nonfarm jobs for Idaho declined to -8.9% during this time. While Idaho construction jobs declined by 4.6% from March 2020 to April 2020, it still maintained a positive 0.6% from April 2019 to April 2020, and by December 2020, progressed to an estimated year-to-year growth rate of 5%. While Idaho’s total nonfarm growth is 0.6% for the same time frame, Other Services lost ground from its rebound and declined 8.0%.

"Job estimates for Other Services declined by 23.4% from April 2019 to April 2020, while total nonfarm jobs for Idaho declined to -8.9% during this time," the report states. "While Idaho construction jobs declined by 4.6% from March 2020 to April 2020, it still maintained a positive 0.6% from April 2019 to April 2020, and by December 2020, progressed to an estimated year-to-year growth rate of 5%. While Idaho’s total nonfarm growth is 0.6% for the same time frame, Other Services lost ground from its rebound and declined 8.0%."

How local programs are working to fill the gap

Programs like the Idaho Job Corps, Idaho Launch, and the Registered Apprentice program are working to help fill this gap--while also working to bring unemployment rates down.

Idaho Job Corps focuses specifically on Idaho's youth--who have faced unique challenges during the pandemic, according to program operations manager Dr. Tina Polishchuk.

"In a lot of households students in that age group, 16-24 have had to step in a kind of parenting role where now they're helping their younger siblings," Polishchuk explains. "We want to get them into a place where they are independent, where they are earning a livable wage appropriate for their level of skill and then build on that."

Idaho Job Corps connects students like Teresa Lewis with educational resources and training to help them build skill sets in their field of choice.

"I want to be an equine vet, so that's what I'm trying to study. There's not a lot of options for classes I can take, but they're helping me get the requirements for college classes out of the way so I can focus on that when I get to it," Lewis said. "It changes you a lot in a good way. When I first came here I was super quiet and I didn't want to talk, but now I'm a leader and a role model for other kids now."

Idaho Launch helps Idahoans of all ages by helping fund their individual goal.

Participants do have to be an Idaho resident and plan to use the benefit to work in Idaho--but as long as you meet those requirements, the program will help fund training, college courses, and even certifications.

According to the program's leaders, there are benefits if you meet those requirements:

  • 100% tuition for approved courses for those whose employment was affected by COVID-19
  • 75-90% tuition for everyone else depending on household income

There is a $7,500 maximum benefit, and it is once in a lifetime, so once you apply and max out that benefit you can't apply again.

Registered apprenticeship programs are also for all ages! Apprenticeships can be focused on building skills for new careers, or even for building up your current skillset.

Organizers say usually people associate apprenticeship programs with blue-collar occupations, but it's now available for a wide variety of careers--including IT and Cybersecurity.