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Idaho in low-wage trap

Sat., May 14, 2011

Former UI professor cites shortfalls in recruiting, education

Idaho is caught in a low-skill, low-wage jobs trap, according to a new analysis by retired University of Idaho agricultural economist Stephen Cooke.

The professor, who retired in December, has studied the issue for the past decade and reports that Idaho workers earn nearly $11,000 less than the national average.

“Why are wages so low in Idaho? That’s the question I’m trying to answer,” Cooke said.

The answer is a complex one, including a lack of priority on educating the state’s work force, he found, and a failure to recruit enough highly paid jobs; Colorado and Utah did things differently and fared far better.

Cooke notes that Idaho is adding jobs in low-wage sectors but losing them in high-wage sectors, while Colorado is the opposite. Idaho’s big-three growing job sectors are outpatient health care services, agriculture, and administrative support services, including call centers.

Declining job sectors in Idaho include professional, scientific and technical services, management of companies and enterprises, and mining.

“We found Idaho focuses its economic development on low-skill jobs, which bring low wages,” Cooke said.

Most high-paying jobs require a college education, Cooke noted, but Idaho has the largest “education gap” – the gap between the number of jobs that require a college degree and the number of college graduates – among the five Rocky Mountain states.

He noted that Utah gained during the recession because it continued to invest in higher education, so it was ready with college graduates who could take high-paying jobs when the economy improved.

Cooke will present a seminar about his work at the university in Moscow on May 27. For more information, call (208) 885-7694.

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