Otter decries talent gap in state work force

With an unemployment rate hovering at 3.7 percent, Idaho has about 28,500 people out of work and looking for a job.

But Idaho employers have left about 22,000 jobs vacant, Gov. Butch Otter said Wednesday, “because we did not have the talent for them.”

During his annual address to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, Otter touted education as the key to developing a work force that can meet the needs of employers.

Speaking to an audience of business and political leaders, Otter praised several education initiatives passed by the 2016 Legislature: a $9.1 million elementary school literacy initiative; funding a state Action Center focused on the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math; and renaming Idaho’s professional-technical education program to emphasize a career-technical focus.

Otter stuck with other familiar themes on education. He said the 2013 recommendations from his education task force provide Idaho with an unprecedented five-year plan for K-12. And he said Idaho needs to press on to produce more college-educated adults — restating the state’s goal to get 60 percent of its 25- to 34-year-olds to hold a college degree or certificate by 2020.

“That’s where those 22,000 jobs can be filled,” Otter said.

The state’s “60 percent goal,” while ambitious, may well be unattainable by the 2020 timeline. Idaho’s completion rate is 40 percent, down from 42 percent in 2014, and remains one of the lowest in the nation.

For the balance of his 33-minute speech, Otter spoke largely on business topics — and provided no real hints about his priorities for the 2017 legislative session.

He said the 2016 Legislature discussed health care coverage more seriously than it has in previous sessions. While Otter acknowledged the plight of the 78,000 Idahoans in the Medicaid gap — ineligible for Medicaid or coverage through the state’s health insurance exchange — he also sympathized with lawmakers who want to see if the 2016 national elections will change the parameters of the health care issue.

Otter said Idaho’s top-end income tax rates should be “much, much lower” than their current 7.4 percent. But he made no specific suggestions about reducing individual and corporate tax rates.