Feb. 05--For the past three decades, Idaho's wages barely exceeded inflation. Getting into that pit took time; so will getting out.
In 1977, Idaho's average wage was 88 percent of the national average.
Then, in the 1980s, the decline started. According to the Idaho Department of Labor, the state's average fell to 76 percent of the national average by 2010.
Today, despite decades of economic development efforts, Idahoans' wages regularly show up near -- or at -- the bottom of 50-state wage rankings.
In part, that's because high paying legacy jobs in forestry and mining have vanished. And Idahoans have shot themselves in their paychecks by not pursuing postsecondary degrees needed for most higher paying jobs.
Idaho was riding a housing boom in the 1970s, which meant good jobs at timber mills. But demand for housing slowed. Idaho was caught in a severe recession in the 1980s, and mills began to close.
"There was a slow decline in the number of lumber, logging, mining and agriculture (jobs)," says Steven Peterson, a research economist at the University of Idaho.
While jobs went away, people didn't. Roots kept many people in rural Idaho even though that meant trading higher-paying jobs elsewhere for lower-paying local work, often in service industries. In his own family, Peterson remembers a time when his father was unemployed for a year: "It never even occurred to my parents to move."
Between 1991 and 2011, the number of service jobs grew by more than 200,000 and reached an average annual salary of $33,766, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. The number reflects all people in those jobs, including highly paid executives. The number of production jobs climbed slightly before descending in the Great Recession, ending at about 112,000, not far from where it started. The average production salary in 2011 was $43,784.
Were the job losses only in rural Idaho?
No. Large companies that once provided top jobs in the Treasure Valley consolidated headquarters, were sold or shed employees. In 1999, Ore-Ida Foods Co. headquarters were consolidated from Boise to Pittsburgh with parent company H.J. Heinz, costing 300 jobs. For a decade ending in 2009, Micron Technology Inc. cut its workforce by about 7,000 people. Supervalu, which bought Albertsons Inc. in 2006, cut hundreds of jobs in Boise from headquarters operations in the last six years. Hewlett Packard Co. has also reduced jobs, though the company won't say how many.
What was the effect?
Many of those "were high-paying jobs," says Don Holley, who left Ore-Ida Foods Co. when it moved 14 years ago and is now a Boise State University economics professor. "Those were the $50,000 (jobs) with benefits that make the mayor salivate."
The trade-off: "We have gained cheese factories and milk processing, and they just don't pay as well. We don't have the executives like we had before."
What happened to wages?
Depending on what you measure, the news is either bad or worse.
Today's median annual salary -- the point at which half the people make more and half less -- in Idaho is $23,192 for all full- and part-time workers. That's dead last in the country, according to a U.S. Census report.
The Great Recession hit Idaho harder than most states. Based on median hourly wages, Idaho slipped from 34th to 42nd between 2008 to 2011, the steepest decline of any state, the state Labor Department says. The hourly median wage climbed slightly from $14.32 in 2008 to $14.54 in 2010 before dropping to $14.51 in 2011.
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