What else affects how people are paid?
Competition, Greber says. In Idaho, he says, a lot of industries lack competition for workers, so wages aren't bid up to attract people.
The technology sector is one area that proves the point in reverse.
At White Cloud Analytics, a Boise company that specializes in health care software, CEO Bob Lokken is usually on the lookout for new software engineers. Idaho schools can't meet his demand for new employees. He's just hired several and may start looking again soon. Boise State University turns out about 25 software engineers a year. The industry in Idaho needs 200, he says.
With engineers in such short supply, companies often end up raiding from each other. Lokken says he must look beyond the state's borders and set salaries attractive not just to Idahoans but to professionals in Portland or Seattle. He offers $90,000 to $140,000 a year to engineers with five or more years of experience.
Aren't Idaho's low wages attractive to industries seeking to move or expand?
"Right now, it's a selling point," says Jeffery Sayer, Idaho Department of Commerce director. "Our hope is that changes as our economy grows."
Clark Krause, executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce's economic development arm, says he doesn't tout low wages. "We don't go after jobs that are low-paying and don't have benefits," he says. But when the partnership announced in April that California lawn-and-pet-supply wholesalers Central Garden & Pet Co. would establish backshop operations in a former Hewlett Packard Co. call center site near Boise Towne Square, the company cited low wages as one reason it came to Idaho.
What about education?
Lack of educated Idahoans plays a big role.
Business leaders, lawmakers, the State Board of Education and the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation have preached for years the importance of going on to postsecondary education.
The board points to national studies showing the wages for those with certificates and degrees after high school are much higher than those of high school graduates or dropouts.
The board is pushing to get 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25 to 34 to obtain some post-high school training by 2020. In 2010, 31 percent of that age group reached the goal. That rose to 35 percent in 2011. The national average is 40 percent.
Idaho's lackluster college attendance has multiple causes. Among them:
-- College costs. Some people just can't afford to go.
-- A culture that did not value a college education as long as jobs were available at a nearby mine, timber mill or farm after high school.
-- Students who go into college only to be frustrated by the number of remedial classes they must take -- and pay for out of their own pocket -- for skills they did not learn in high school.
Idahoans who receive short-term training on the job average less than $12 per hour, while those with postsecondary vocational training earn nearly $20, and those with bachelor's degrees earn more than $26, according to a 2010 Idaho Department of Labor study.
At the College of Western Idaho, students completing a surgical-technologist curriculum can expect to start work in a hospital for $38,400 a year. Surgical technologists keep surgical areas sanitized, take care of surgical machinery and hand physicians surgical instruments.
Sixteen students are enrolled for the one-year program, which requires previous classes in physiology and anatomy.
Half the students have jobs before they leave the program. The others are employed within six months, says Cathleen Currie, assistant dean of health professions. The program has a 90-student waiting list.
Will things get better?
Wages will rise as the economy improves, says Peterson, the U of I economist. He points to Micron, which has added jobs. After shrinking its Boise workforce to about 5,000 employees in 2009, Micron has added about 600 jobs in the past couple of years.
Parts of the state are beginning to have "attractive, high-paying, high-tech manufacturing jobs," he says.
Crabb believes education is the path to sustainably higher wages for Idahoans. "Very few of our citizens go onto higher education," Crabb says. "We don't have the skills that are going to get higher wages." That's partly why states like Massachusetts have experienced double-digit salary growth when adjusted for inflation and Idaho hasn't, he says.
But change is coming. Crabb points to the growth of College of Western Idaho, which has 9,000 students after four years.
"I see people waking up to this (and seeing) that we need a different kind of workforce," he says.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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