Conference promotes regional networking

More than 300 lawmakers, educators and business leaders from around Idaho convened Tuesday for a full day of activities devoted to sparking collaboration to “educate Idaho.”

The Innovate to Educate conference, held at the Riverside Hotel, served as the kickoff event for the Educate Idaho Network.

Kickoff is the key word, said network co-chair Molly Lenty.

Tuesday was for learning and listening to speakers and panelists but most importantly, it was devised to build regional teams. In the day’s final activity, participants met in five regional groups to plan future connections. The groups were assigned to identify leaders, objectives and next steps. The groups were given tool kits that included resources and potential for grant money.

“The house is on fire and there are massive problems,” said the day’s final speaker, ballet dancer John Michael Schert, a founder of Boise’s Trey McIntyre Project. “You are the people who can change it.”

The grant money came from the College Access Challenge Grant through the U.S. Department of Education. The grant was awarded to bring together stakeholders and support regional cross-industry programs designed to improve Idaho’s postsecondary educational statistics. Idaho ranks among the lowest in the nation in college go-on rates and degree completion.

Much of the day was spent sharing information about industry needs and education practices. And how they don’t always mesh.

“The languages of education and business are like French and German,” said Jeffery Sayer, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce. “We need to start bridging the gap. Businesses need to articulate the exact skill sets they are looking for and be a partner developing them.”

Engineering or computer science companies have not been coming to Idaho recently, said Sayer. Instead, Idaho has seen a surge of call centers.

“Those are the businesses being drawn to this area because that’s what our talent pool is,” he said. “I have a favor to ask of all of you. As industry comes forward, please listen and please care. Help us create a talent pipeline for our economic future.”

Sayer also shared some sobering numbers.

  • Idaho is trending to be 95,000 workers short of work force needs.
  • The demographic moving to Idaho is 65 and older.
  • States will stop recruiting industry and start recruiting talent.

“It’s important for our economy that we figure this out,” Sayer said.

Amy Lientz of the Idaho National Laboratory said the federal site has hired 600 people in the last year, and could hire an additional 100, but can’t find skilled labor.

“We are in a crisis – a desperate need,” she said. “Employees are jumping from one opportunity to another which shines a light on a real problem — we don’t have enough talent.”

She said INL has changed its working environment to keep talent. Employees can choose to work four 10-hour shifts instead of a traditional five-day week. Coffee shops are in the lobbies and everyone is allowed to use social media.

All day Tuesday, participants were asked to discuss three questions and put their answers on boards placed throughout the room.

Here are some of the questions and responses:

If funding was removed as a barrier, what resources are needed to make impacts in education?

Teacher pay.
Teacher bonuses.
Community partners.
Parental engagement.
Interest-free loans for postsecondary education.

Which stakeholders need to be involved or “at the table” in order to make an impact with a successful education collaborative or initiative?

Families and parents.
Front-line implementers.

What is YOUR greatest personal asset or opportunity to contribute to education?


The conference unveiled a new website, Next Steps Idaho, that collects and organizes resources for kids seeking post-secondary opportunities.

Caldwell Mayor Garret Nancolas encouraged participants to learn from each other and alter good ideas to fit communities and needs.

“Be bold. Say yes. Be a bridge builder,” Nancolas said.

Jennifer Swindell

Jennifer Swindell

Managing editor and CEO Jennifer Swindell founded Idaho Education News in 2013. She has led the online news platform as it has grown in readership and engagement every year, reaching over two million pageviews a year. Jennifer has more than 35 years of experience in Idaho journalism. She also has served as a public information officer for Idaho schools and as a communication director at Boise State University. She can be reached at [email protected].

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