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INL faces ‘perfect storm’ of aging workforce and lack of STEM candidates, director says

Mark Peters attended an Idaho Technology Council meeting on March 2 before addressing the Idaho Legislature. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters is shown here at an Idaho Technology Council meeting on March 2. He later addressed the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee of the Idaho Legislature. Photo by Celia Southcombe.

The Idaho National Laboratory is experiencing a “perfect storm” of growth, aging and lack of qualified candidates that could make it hard to continue the success of its past year, its director told lawmakers March 2.

Mark Peters told the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee March 2 that the sprawling eastern Idaho research saw significant success in fiscal year 2015. Among other things, the 890-square-mile federal research facility:

  • received $917 million in federal funding
  • added 506 new employees.
  • directed $130 million to Idaho subcontractors and small businesses.
  • raised its number of interns from 170 to 350.

Business is expected to continue to grow for the U.S. Department of Energy site, which was established in 1949 and employs thousands. INL officials estimate that the facility’s budget will grow by more than $400 million to $1.3 billion by 2020. But that success could exacerbate workforce strains, the same strains Idaho businesses are feeling.

Idaho’s population is aging. The retirement of the baby boomers will produce a workforce gap if the economy keeps producing new jobs at its current rate, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. By 2025 the number of vacant positions in Idaho will be about 63,000.

The gap is likely to hit the INL, where 30 percent of the staff is over the age of 50 and much of the company’s projected growth is in technology fields it could become hard to hire for, Peters said.

Peters described what he called the perfect storm in employment, including:

  • The aging of the workforce.
  • The INL’s growth.
  • Local and national competition for highly sought candidates with educations in STEM fields.
  • A mismatch between Idaho’s curriculum and the site’s needs.
  • A lack of work experience for many young candidates.

“The discussion we need to start is how do we attract the workforce needed to support industry in Idaho,” Peters said.

The INL hopes to mitigate the affects of this storm and is beginning to address these concerns through partnering with universities to help them create programs that will target the skills needed at the INL. Laboratory personnel are also working with Idaho businesses to produce a technology culture that builds a larger talent pool, he said. The lab is also increasing the number of interns it uses and making promotional videos in an attempt to sell international workers on the quality of life in eastern Idaho.

Peters moved to Idaho from Chicago were he was the deputy director of the Argonne National Laboratory. Peters said he speaks from experience when he told legislators there are great reasons to move to Idaho, but that those reasons aren’t advertised well enough.

“I can speak for myself — once you get to Idaho you understand why you should live here,” Peters said. “It’s a well-kept secret.”

A copy of much of the information the INL presented to the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee and all of the information it presented to the Joint Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee in January can be found on the Idaho Legislature’s website.

About Benton Alexander Smith

Benton Alexander Smith is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering the Idaho Legislature, new business, technology and financial services.

One comment

  1. “A lack of work experience for many young candidates.”

    Businesses need to consider the fact that training needs to be part of their responsibility. I hear businesses complaining about inexperienced workers all the time; well, maybe if this is a perpetual problem, you should solve it… since it’s your problem.