Making it in the Magic Valley

Hatfield Manufacturing part owner Jason Hatfield inspects products at a warehouse Jan. 25 near Gooding.

DREW NASH, TIMES-NEWS

Not everyone believes this, but let’s assume that economic growth is good for the Magic Valley. New companies, better jobs, higher wages. That often leads to more public investments and in general a better quality of life for Magic Valley residents.

We’re seeing it all across the valley, as new companies relocate or start businesses here and older companies expand.

But growth can also create its own problems, beyond the argument from anti-growth folks who fear a shifting cultural identity. Grow too fast, and there might not be enough workers to fill all these new jobs.

That’s exactly what’s happening in Mini-Cassia, where Cassia County alone has seen jobs grow at a staggering 19.5 percent over the past 10 years.

McCain Foods, Dow Chemical, Fabri-Kal. All now competing for a limited labor pool.

Not surprising, companies must compete harder for workers, and that’s boosting wages across the region. Minidoka County used to have one of the lowest average salaries across a six-county region in southern Idaho. Now, it pays one of the highest — $35,773 — up from $25,589 just 10 years ago.

Still, even by providing better wages and benefits, companies are complaining about the difficulty to fill jobs, especially those that require advanced training or education.

It’s a pretty simple equation: Companies can’t continue to grow if there aren’t qualified workers to fill these jobs. And that could spell disaster for our booming regional economy.

Here’s how we can fix the problem:

The state’s Labor Department can help local businesses recruit trained workers from other manufacturing areas, one business leader suggested. If the workers aren’t here, we need to go get them.

Schools can do a better job customizing their training programs to meet the demands of local employers. Sometimes, it’s simply a communication problem: Recent grads aren’t always aware of the opportunities they have locally.

Public investments, like Twin Falls’ downtown renovation and trail system expansions, help create communities where workers want to live. And labor experts say community and company pride go a long way toward retaining and attracting workers.

The state must do more to stop the “brain drain,” losing Idaho’s most talented workers to other states. Creating new four-year programs and boosting college-level training programs could help stem the flow. Legislators have rightly increased state education spending; we need more.

On Thursday, a governor-appointed task force released its recommendation for closing the state’s skills gap. The Legislature should rush to adopt the recommendations.

Companies must continue to be creative in their wage and benefits packages. Companies who do this stand the best chance at luring workers in a limited labor pool.

Housing developers need to recognize their opportunities. Some businesses say they can’t recruit workers because there isn’t enough housing. Local governments can help solve the housing crunch by working with developers on smart housing developments that cater to the new workforce.

None of these solutions alone is a magic bullet. Together, they’re a roadmap to success.

The good news is that companies and governments are already working together to solve the labor gap by pursuing the suggestions above. They simply have to do it better — and faster.

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