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Idaho leads nation in job growth, but trails in wages

Idaho led the nation for job growth through most of 2015, but it did so with a mix of high paying jobs such as construction, which grew by 6.5 percent, and low paying jobs such as food services, which grew by 6.2 percent. File photo.

Idaho led the nation for job growth through most of 2015, but it did so with a mix of high paying jobs such as construction, which grew by 6.5 percent, and low paying jobs such as food services, which grew by 6.2 percent. File photo.

Idaho’s nation-leading job growth has been widely reported, but a report by the Idaho Department of Labor says that Idaho isn’t as far ahead of its neighbors as it appears.

Idaho added the most jobs in the country between March 2015 and March 2016. The number of Idaho jobs increased by 3.6 percent. But several of Idaho’s neighbors kept close pace. Oregon and Utah both grew by 3.3 percent and Washington grew by 3.2 percent, according to the department of Labor.

But the wages for Idaho’s new hires are significantly lower than those in  neighboring states, said Ethan Mansfield, regional economist with the Idaho Department of Labor.

“I’m just trying to point these things out in order to move Idaho into the 21st century,” Mansfield said. “There are ideas in the surrounding states (which employers to attract) that are providing higher earnings and are high-powered job engines.”

Idaho’s average wage for new hires in 2014 and 2015 was about $1,900 a month. That was $237 less than the average wage for new hires in Utah, $436 less than in Oregon and more than $1,000 less than in Washington.

The biggest difference between the four states is the type of jobs each state saw the most growth in. Most of the states saw a large increase in construction jobs (6.5 percent increase between March 2015 and March 2016), which paid wages well above Idaho’s average ($2,621 a month).  Idaho’s top five industries also included hospitality and food service jobs, an increase of 6.2 percent paying an average of only $971 a month.  Idaho also saw a large increase in educational services, 5.3 percent and an average salary of $1,451 a month; and retail trade, a 3.8 percent increase and an average salary of $1,556 a month.

Ethan Mansfield

Ethan Mansfield

Top industries in the three other states included service sector jobs such as information (including software publishing), finance and insurance, management of companies and headquarters and scientific and tech services. Each of these industries produced an average salary of more than $3,200 a month.

“Idaho has this lack of service jobs that set us apart,” Mansfield said. “Idaho has a hard time bringing in high wage service jobs.”

Idaho policy makers and business developers should continue to place effort in attracting technology sector jobs and other high paying service jobs — even if it means placing less emphasis on natural resource jobs, which declined 1.5 percent in 2015, and manufacturing jobs which have traditionally comprised a large portion of Idaho’s economy, Mansfield said.

The Idaho Legislature approved the creation of the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Action Center in 2015 to address many of the problems that Mansfield identified. The center works to build workforce training programs in schools and universities to build up high-paying jobs within the science, technology and advanced-manufacturing industries. Its board includes organizations with similar goals including the Idaho Technology Council, the Idaho Department of Labor, the Idaho Department of Commerce and big employers such as Micron and the Idaho National Laboratory.

Angela Hemingway

Angela Hemingway

The center focuses more on workforce building than company attraction and most of the funding it has distributed for programs came in 2016, so there are few measures of its success to date.

“As we look at our students and our workforce it is critically important that we add these opportunities, as the (DOL) report indicates,” said Angela Hemingway, executive director of the STEM Action Center. “But if you look at how many STEM jobs are unfilled in Idaho, the average last year was 3,800.”

Non-STEM jobs in Idaho pay a median wage of $15.60 per hour while STEM jobs pay a median wage of $32 per hour, Hemingway said.

“If you quickly do the math you’re looking at $250 million in unclaimed labor wages as a  result of us not having the workforce,” Hemingway said. “We look at how we can retool our workforce. So many of those individuals are currently in low-wage jobs and we want to give them the skills to move into the jobs we know are here in Idaho, but are going unfilled.”

A lot of the classes that the center has funded have focused on advanced manufacturing and getting 3D printers into schools around Idaho. The Idaho Legislature appropriated $4 million dollars to the center for its budget year beginning July 1, and $2 million of that will go to computer science programs.

The center anticipates a 14 percent increase in computing jobs,  9 percent increase in engineering jobs and a 23 percent increase in advanced manufacturing jobs by 2024, according to a presentation that Hemingway gave the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee of the Idaho Legislature in January.


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.


  1. Benton Alexander Smith

    Idaho’s cost of living isn’t as affordable as several people make it out to be. Obviously it depends on what part of the state you live in so I will use Boise as an example. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Boise is so far behind several of the western cities it competes with in wages that the cost of living doesn’t make the difference up. Cities like Denver, Colo.; Seattle, Spokane, Wash.; and Reno, Nev. are all more affordable cities than Boise because wages are so high. Similarly, Austin, Texas and Salt Lake City both have a comparable cost of living, but still pay higher wages. Here is a link to this information.

  2. More irresponsible hack journalism. You kind of forgot to mention that the cost of living is 30% less than the other areas too. Donkeys