Average weekly wages Q1, 2016-2017

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

LEE ENTERPRISES GRAPHIC

TWIN FALLS — As south-central Idaho welcomes business expansions, with historically low unemployment, employers are stepping up their recruiting efforts — and their wages. In some cases, the wage growth in the region’s counties is surpassing both state and national levels.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported average weekly wages rose 7 percent across the state from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017. Idahoans’ average weekly wage was $775 — still far below the U.S. average of $1,111, which was up 6.6 percent from 2016.

In south-central Idaho, Camas County got the closest to the national average, with the typical employee earning $914 per week. Wages here were actually down from a year ago, but it was the only county to see a decrease.

The BLS data shows that Mini-Cassia led the way for wage growth across the region.

“The numbers kind of tell the story,” Idaho Department of Labor Workforce Consultant Chet Jeppesen said. “We have a low unemployment rate and businesses are raising wages in order to attract and retain a workforce.”

Cassia County’s average weekly wages grew 8.7 percent to $673. Minidoka County’s wages, meanwhile, rose in the first quarter of this year to $683, up 7.7 percent.

This is also a direct result, Jeppesen said, of new businesses coming in over the past couple of years — such as Fabri-Kal in Burley.

“It’s kind of a cycle we see. When companies build and expand, there’s more competition,” he said. “They’re paying competitive wages and offering competitive benefits.”

Even existing farmers and retailers are raising wages in Minidoka County, Jeppesen said. Additionally, Minidoka Memorial Hospital has been expanding, he said, and new healthcare-related jobs could boost the county’s average wage.

Fabri-Kal opened its Burley plant in 2015 with the plan of launching a line of plastic cups for Chobani. But in 2016, the company began hiring feverishly to expand making its wheat straw food service to-go containers, Plant Manager Brian Hackett said.

The company’s average weekly wage is about on par with Cassia County’s, he said. Fabri-Kal now has 60 employees — three times the number it had when it first opened.

In increasing wages, “We fight that battle all the time,” Hackett said. “I feel like we’re competing in both maintenance and machine operators, and that makes up 80 percent of our employment.”

Fabri-Kal has had to make two wage adjustments just since October 2015, he said. Hackett felt the company was a little off to begin with, but it’s now fine-tuning its compensation.

It’s a trend that appears to have continued with employers through the rest of 2017. Amalgamated Sugar said the low unemployment this year resulted in the company upping its starting wage for harvest positions in the late summer and fall.

“Overall, it has been a difficult year for hiring,” spokeswoman Jessica McAnally said in a statement.

In Jerome County, wages rose only 4.3 percent to $675 in the first quarter of 2017. But one company, Jerome Cheese, sent out flyers this month advertising it is “now paying higher starting wages on all positions, some up to $4/hour more.”

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Meanwhile, employment continued to grow across south-central Idaho through the first quarter of 2017. Idaho grew its workforce by 3 percent from that time in 2016. By comparison, nationwide employment rose 1.6 percent.

Lincoln County had the biggest employment change as a percentage, up 9.5 percent after it gained more than 130 people.

But in sheer numbers, Twin Falls County gained the most employees, growing by 1,147 people — a 3.1 percent employment increase.

Mini-Cassia, however, did not see significant employment growth. Minidoka County had a slight decrease, while Cassia County rose its employment by 1.8 percent.

“We know that the workforce is limited,” Jeppesen said.

He expects the wage trend to continue with McCain Food’s latest expansion. But big drawback to recruiting to Mini-Cassia will be a lack of available housing — especially multifamily housing.

“It’s going to continue to be a challenge, year-in and year-out in this area, until more housing is developed,” Hackett said.

Fabri-Kal also intends to grow its workforce, and anticipates it will have to adjust its wage scale for machine operators.

“That’s where we have to be very competitive,” Hackett said. “It is our intention to grow 100 percent more, again, in the next 18 months.”

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