BOISE - Idaho has the worst wages in the nation.
The Famous Potatoes state ranks 50th for average annual wage, per-capita income, and for wage increases since 2007. It also has the greatest percentage of minimum-wage workers in America.
After hearing those figures Thursday as they reviewed Idaho’s economic outlook, state legislative leaders said it’s time to figure out how to reverse that “dubious distinction” for the state.
“I don’t think anybody’s proud of that No. 1,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. He quizzed the state’s new Labor director, Ken Edmunds, about why the state ranks so poorly. “We need to understand, I think, as a state this phenomenon here, so that we can address this as we shape policy to improve these numbers,” Bedke said.
Edmunds responded, “The issue going forward is the nature of our workforce. We’ve been creating jobs because of a need to create jobs and bring the unemployment rate down, but now we need to … push for more job creation in skilled areas.”
The nature of the jobs that Idaho creates, Edmunds said, “needs to shift now. … We need to focus on the nature of the jobs and raising the compensation of those jobs.”
That, he said, will require improvements in education. “Employers are saying they are not getting the employees they need at any level, as far as skills,” Edmunds said, “from recent high school graduates all the way up through people at high levels in computer science. … We have to change our approach.”
Edmunds just started as the state’s labor chief in November; he previously served on the state Board of Education.
Bedke called his answer “thought-provoking,” and said, “I think it’s incumbent upon all policy makers to pause and listen to what we’ve just been told.”
The exchange came as Idaho is poised for a legislative session that launches Monday with school funding and improvements as its top issue. Gov. Butch Otter convened an education stakeholders task force that over the past year and a half held hearings around the state, and near-unanimously endorsed a slate of sweeping reforms, from restoring tens of millions cut from the state’s schools during the recession, to boosting teacher pay and reforming how the state’s schools operate.
“I think that will be our blueprint going forward,” Bedke said, calling the school reform and funding issue “head and shoulders above the rest” of the many pressing issues facing Idaho lawmakers as they convene.
Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, agreed. The Legislature’s top challenge, he said, is “going to be finding money for education reforms.”