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Panelists offer insight into growth, workforce, other challenges

Nine panelists tackled navigating four of the hottest, and possibly most pressing, topics facing nearly every Idaho business today: growth, development, wages and the workforce. This panel discussion — Idaho Business Review’s annual Forum on the Future event — took place Dec. 9 at Boise Centre, with current advised COVID-19 precautions followed. Two moderators from presenting event sponsor Hawley Troxell facilitated a two-part conversation around the above topics, with a Q & A session that followed for all panelists. 

In addition to speaking about what various stakeholders are seeing happening in the areas of growth, development, wages and the workforce, the panelists gave unique insight and advice for navigating various resulting challenges, some that could become problems. 

A summary  

The consensus among the five growth and development panelists was that there is a housing shortage, and new units of various types — single family to multifamily — are not being built fast enough throughout the entire state, partially due to supply shortages.

Speakers (from left) Cliff Long, Jim Shipman, Penny Dennis, Bill Rauer, David Bailey, and moderator Justin Fredin, discuss growth and development in the first Forum on the Future panel discussion on Dec. 9 at Boise Centre. Photo by Pete Grady

“‘Where are (the supplies) and when will they get here?’ They’re asking us a lot of questions that all of a sudden we can’t answer,” said Penny Dennis, business development and preconstruction manager for Layton Construction. 

“(Some developers) basically had to stop doing some custom homes because their ability to promise a time frame and a contract for a custom home is really impaired,” Bill Rauer, executive officer of the Building Contractors Association of Southwestern Idaho, added. 

However, some are being nimble and finding ways to use similar needed products that are available for construction.  

Additionally, as Dennis pointed out, Idaho, unlike other states, has just one interstate, and some stakeholders, like industrial developers, are surprised at that. 

Jim Shipman, managing partner and market leader for Colliers, brought up Denver and Salt Lake City as comparisons.  

“We’re very restricted,” Shipman said. “All this industrial growth is because of distribution.” 

Cliff Long, senior services development director for the City of Nampa, was asked what Nampa and other cities can learn from out-of-state cities, including Renton, Washington, where Long recently came from. Long responded, “Land use decisions last for decades.” 

“Renton is an older community that’s built out,” Long said. “Greenfields no longer exist in the community. I spent most of my time working on redevelopment projects and trying to assemble infill.” 

When moderator Justin Fredin asked what information gaps are hampering development and how can information be better used to guide future development decisions, David Bailey, owner of Bailey Engineering and landproDATA.com, said, “We are awash in information…the cities and the public agencies have done a pretty complete job; but then we’re not following (it).” 

Four panelists with direct ties to labor-related industries shared what they were seeing from employee and employer perspectives, and Jani Revier, director of the Idaho Department of Labor, shared a snapshot of unemployment (and the job market) in the state. 

The state is back to pre-pandemic levels around unemployment, Revier said — which was about 2.6% — adding, “We’re back to that really tight labor market that we had, but in reality, it’s even tighter.” 

She highlighted the following recent statistics: 

  • Current unemployment is about 2.8% 
  • 56,000 open jobs 
  • 25,000 people unemployed 
  • 62.4% workforce participation rate (down from 64%) 

Susan Olson moderates the second Idaho Business Review Forum on the Future discussion panel on workforce and wages. Panelists are (from left) Jani Revier, Justy Thomas, Yvonne Gardner and Rob Graham. Photo by Pete Grady

“That difference equates to about 23,000 people that have just left the workforce,” Revier added. 

Yvonne Gardner, managing principal with Gallagher, expanded on Revier’s comments by acknowledging resulting ripple effects. 

“Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has the silver bullet,” she said regarding an “unprecedented wage pressure” and other challenges, though typically companies good at sharing “their story” are usually doing better at attracting workers. 

Rob Graham, account manager for Express Employment Professionals, said that, despite the challenges, some good collaborations — such as between businesses and higher education — were happening around employment and that many potential workers were giving more consideration to a company’s culture. Rather than the “Great Resignation,” Graham said he saw a potentially better description: the “Great Reshuffle.” 

“People are seeing opportunity in what’s happening right now,” Graham said.  

The most strain is being felt around the entry-level workforce, which has seen at times a nearly 40% jump in wages. 

“To try and bring whatever product you’re trying to bring to market up at that same rate is near impossible,” Graham said. 

When asked by moderator Susan Olson what’s not working, Graham replied, “quick hires;” meaning that while hiring does need to be done quickly to be competitive, too quick of a hire could translate to that new employee not staying very long. 

In a sort of merging of all the above topics, Justy Thomas, human resources professional for SUEZ — Idaho’s largest water company — spoke to the company’s efforts to retain current employees, especially those with around two decades of institutional knowledge and experience. Then, the company is also looking at recruitment, to grow with the housing and resulting utility needs demands. 

Advice 

To close each panel, moderators asked the panelists to give their top piece of advice around the topics they spoke to. 

  • Cliff Long: Recognize density is a virtue, not a villain; and we need to build a little smarter. 
  • Jim Shipman: We need to get back to the fundamentals ,and all the different communities need to work together to make something work. 
  • Penny Dennis: It’s time for us to think a little bigger in order to solve challenges, such as building up not out to preserve the out. 
  • Bill Rauer: Continuing our broad spectrum of residential housing options will help preserve open space and provide economic opportunity for the construction industry. 
  • David Bailey: People who live here can’t afford to buy a house. “That’s what’s got us locked up.” 
  • Rob Graham: You’ve got to work on retention, and collaboration — like workshare. “We’ve all got the answers somewhere too, somewhere in there.” 
  • Yvonne Gardner: “Get very good at telling your story…but also being able to make that real to your employees.” 
  • Justy Thomas: “(Make) sure that your employees feel valued and have a clear path to how you as an employer are going to help them succeed.” 
  • Jani Revier: “Wage pressure is real.” And, “Businesses are going to have to look at how they can develop and train the workforce they need, because it’s getting harder and harder to hire that off the street.” 

A selection from the Q&A 

To kick off the session, Idaho Business Review Publisher Cindy Suffa asked Jim Shipman what trends in retail and other service industries he foresees for 2022.

“Retail will continue to evolve,” Shipman said. “And it will survive. It’s a different merchandising plan. It’s more of the services. You can’t cut your hair online; you can’t sit for fine dining online.” 

“People enjoy the experience of going to a store,” Shipman added. “Not everybody can just pick out a shirt online and say, ‘That’s what I want.’” 

Other questions included: 

Rhea Allen, Peppershock Media: What is the wildest, most creative way that you’ve been able to recruit? 

Yvonne Gardner: “Typically, we are bringing in for our more junior levels. We have started to really embrace the concept of ‘you need to understand the environment to be successful.’ So, we offer these folks the opportunity to come into the office for the day, meet with everybody, and kind of participate in one of our staff meetings.” 

“We are, of course, in those kinds of contacts, very careful about…we are talking about,” Gardner added. “…You also want to make sure that you have people who are going to be a good fit for the type of work, or you are going to find they (will) leave.” 

Michael Shaw, with the JR Simplot Company, asked what the panelists are doing to prepare their organizations for a culture shift. 

“We have a lot of folks coming forward who are nonbinary, and are interested in a work environment that protects folks based on sexual orientation, and things of that nature,” Shaw explained. 

Among the suggestions of everyone taking responsibility for the company’s culture (Justy Thomas and Jim Shipman) and making sure each generation understands the pros and cons of the other generations (Rob Graham), Penny Dennis added that a past attitude that she’s seen of “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, or get back in the kitchen”  

“If you don’t adapt as an employer, you’re going to lose that great worker,” Dennis said. “They’re going to look for some other opportunity where they feel included, and not only from a salary perspective, but from a day-to-day satisfaction perspective.” 

“We have to adapt not only because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s a business necessity. Elevate all opinions, all cultures and make your day-to-day workplace a better place to be,” Dennis added.

Toward the end of the Q & A, one audience member asked, “What’s the vision for the Treasure Valley?” 

David Bailey took a crack at it. 

“It’s a good question, but I think the answer is there is no unified vision,” Bailey said. “That vision…probably starts with the transportation piece, something aggressive.” 

“The answer is, that’s something we all ought to be involved in trying to figure out,” Bailey added. “Without that vision, how do we hope to respond to any of these problems we’ve talked about today?” 

Remaining questions 

The following are questions, I think, are questions to ponder, and possibly address through a larger gathering of stakeholders: 

  • What are general tipping points that will cause a business to say, “Nevermind, I don’t want to come to Idaho to throw my hat into the ring anymore.” 
  • Who’s feet should be held to the fire? And, at what point can’t they say, ‘Oh, it’s someone else’s problem?’  
  • Just how dire are the current circumstances around development, growth, workforce and wages? At what point do the challenges become problems? 
  • What percent of Idaho’s unemployed are employable, and for what? Additionally, where are the gaps as caused by the “Great Reshuffle”? 
  • How can small businesses compete? 
  • What is the vision for the Treasure Valley? And, by extension, Idaho? 
  • Regarding the opportunity to learn from cities like Denver and Salt Lake City…is it really not too late? Why? 

About Alx Stevens