For months, I’ve studied the debate on whether there’s a shortage of software developers in Idaho. I’ve decided there is a gap, but there’s also a broader issue of concern. I’ll explain.
To research the labor market, I dived into academic papers, studied arguments for and against visa programs for skilled foreign workers, read dry economic formulas with regression analyses, and tracked international, national and regional statistics. But I’m not going to descend into the rabbit hole of tracking all the different arguments, because that type of analysis would be pages long. I’m going to try to keep it clean and simple.
Is there a shortage of software developers in Idaho? Yes, there is. Even a recent article in Boise State University’s Blue Review that questions the significance of the software industry relative to other sectors in Idaho finds there is a talent gap in a job category that captures software developers.
The author, Chris Blanchard, cites a 2010 study by Economic Modeling Specialists International, an employment data and economic analysis firm in Moscow, Idaho. EMSI researchers estimated a talent gap of 371 Idaho workers in 2009 for jobs identified as “computer programming, specific applications.”
To complicate the issue a bit, EMSI researchers also took a look at data in 2012 that found real wages for programmers and web developers across the country have declined since 2004, suggesting that there might not be pressing demand for those workers across the country. But as EMSI researchers surmised, “Maybe the demand is there and employers aren’t willing or able to pay what they need to find skilled developers.” That’s an argument being hotly debated between private industry, academics and labor unions.
That led to another study a few months later that looked at an estimate of broader IT worker shortages by state. Again, EMSI identified a talent gap in Idaho, this one on the order of 68 workers. That number doesn’t sound like a lot and pales in comparison to California’s 6,475, but it is significant.
For instance, a conservative back-of-the-envelope calculation assuming an annual average salary of $59,000 for computer and mathematical occupations multiplied by 68 workers equals more than $4 million in wages that could contribute to the Idaho economy. Multiply that same salary, keeping in mind that software developers tend to make more, by 371, and the result is nearly $22 million in Idaho wages that never entered the economy.
Now let’s go back to Blanchard’s article. His point is that the gap in software developers isn’t as great as Idaho’s need for talent in other job categories, such as business administration and management. As public and private dollars are limited, he thinks money for education and human capital should be targeted to areas that are relatively more significant to the Idaho economy than software and “generates the greatest benefit.”
In that regard, Blanchard’s thinking is similar to that of Idaho Commerce Director Jeffery Sayer, who told me, “We should be investing in the highest return, but the more relevant, accurate data is coming directly from industry leaders, and not depending on government data that can oftentimes be a couple of years behind.”
According to the Idaho Department of Labor, there were more than 1,800 online job postings within the past four months for a broad range of computer jobs. Department officials caution this isn’t exactly the number of jobs available, but they believe it’s a good proxy for hiring demand in Idaho.
But my concern for Idaho’s economic development is broader than software development or tech workers or industries with the greatest return. It’s tough for government to pick winners and losers in dynamic economies.
I don’t think I’m risking my neck by saying any investment in the education system, especially in a state with low graduation rates at the college level, is worth it. Whether it’s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, or the humanities, or the arts, any subject that enriches critical and cognitive thinking is of value for the state’s economic development.
Although there may be disagreements among economists as to how much education creates how many percentage points of economic growth for which types of countries, it’s pretty clear that a solid education is beneficial for any economy around the world, including Idaho’s.
Now, let’s turn to what this issue is really about. Economic development is essentially money. Does Idaho have what it takes to keep it, grow it and attract it?
This reminds me of my past work at the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office. Two of my bosses there, Robert Zoellick, former head of the World Bank, and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., former Republican presidential candidate, were fond of saying, “Capital is a coward.” I don’t think they originated the phrase, but they used it to illustrate that money is rational. It likes to flee or avoid risky environments, including those with bad policies, unpredictability, ignorance and illiteracy.
If Idaho can’t attract or keep capital or talented workers here, then that’s an issue. So let’s find a way to create a sound, predictable business environment where capital isn’t afraid to come, stay and grow in Idaho.
Scott Ki is a Boise-based writer. He is a former staff writer for the Idaho Business Review and reporter for Boise State Public Radio. His past experience ranges from international trade negotiations to tech marketing and sales consultant to part-time “associate” at REI. He’s now considering starting a small business.