Over the course of the last four years, since my return to Idaho Falls, I’ve sat in on meetings of various civic, service and business organizations. One of the causes of much hand-wringing among community leaders appears to revolve around the idea of keeping talent in the area.
Right now, our community is something of a revolving door. Talented folks come, stay a few years and then leave. We’re an amazing place for entry-level talent to get the experience they need to take the next step in their career — which usually means leaving for other areas with better pay and opportunities for advancement.
If, as a community, we’re happy with the idea of training talent to a certain point and then waving goodbye, this arrangement works just fine.
But if we want to actually draw more talent in the area, we might need a different approach. We might need to start investing in our people.
In Idaho, a popular example of talent retention is in the area of education. Idaho ranks 44th in the country for teacher starting pay. The recent move to raise the minimum to $40,000 should bump us up a bit in the rankings but probably won’t solve the retention problem.
The state legislature doesn’t offer a teacher loan forgiveness program (like they do in some of our neighboring states, like Utah). House and Senate Democrats in the Idaho Legislature introduced loan assistance for educators, but it went nowhere. We don’t pay our teachers enough to live on, and we don’t offset some of that indignity by offering other perks.
It’s not just an issue in the education field, though. While our community often extolls the virtues of work, we don’t put our money where our mouths are when it comes to wages. According to the United Way, 46 percent of Idaho Falls can be considered Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, Employed. People in Idaho Falls are working — but they still can’t pay the bills.
We like to tout our low cost of living, but the cost of living in Bonneville County isn’t low enough to make up for the fact that our wages lag even further behind the national average. According to MIT, the needed living wage for a two-adult household with only one income and two children is $25.07 per hour. In a state that has the seventh-highest percentage of minimum wage jobs, that’s a pipe dream for many of our residents.
Some leaders like to tout the fact that Idaho sports a recent spike in personal income. Well, it’s not that hard when you’re starting from the bottom. We have a low unemployment rate, but what kind of jobs are people getting — and how many do they hold down just to make ends meet?
Until we’re truly willing to face the fact that a large number of our community members are working plenty hard and still can’t get ahead — and unless we’re willing to do something about it — we’ll continue to be the place where people come to get a bit of experience before leaving to bless other communities with their talents.