Panel: Gap exists between education and work force needs

A “serious” gap exists between what Idahoans are learning and what the workplace demands, causing employers to look out-of-state for quality applicants.

That was the sentiment from a Tuesday morning discussion hosted by the Idaho Business Review titled “People Planning: Workforce Development.”

In front of a full room of nearly 100 listeners, five education and work force development experts discussed the challenges of finding a qualified work force and how the education community is coping.

Angelique Pruitt, an employment manager at Idaho Power, said her work force will be depleted by 46 percent over the next five years due to retirement. The utility needs the help of the education community to fill those in-demand jobs.

“We can’t find skilled workers — craftsmen, technicians, linemen, electricians,” Pruitt said.

And it’s been increasingly more difficult for Idaho Power to hire Idahoans. The company used to hire 5 percent of its work force from out of state; now, that number is 20 percent. “As a public utility company, that’s not what we want,” Pruitt said. “Hiring out of state also hurts our retention.”

Christi Rood, an executive director with the College of Western Idaho, said her school has the training programs, but it’s been challenging to attract students to those programs.

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“We will change our curriculum to meet industry standards,” Rood said.

Boise State University’s Mary Andrews said secondary school educators need to expose students to a variety of career paths.

“How do we rethink education to make sure there is relevance between what they are learning and how it can be applied?” Andrews asked. “How do we connect math to how one constructs a building?”

Wendi Secrist, director of business outreach for the Idaho Division of Professional-Technical Education, said educators and parents need to send a different message to high school students.

“We keep saying, ‘Get a four-year degree,’ instead of showing the full breadth of what’s out there and connecting their passion and interest to opportunities for careers,” Secrist said.

Andrews pushed some of the responsibly onto business.

“We need industries to help to make sure our programs are relevant,” said Andrews, encouraging business leaders to serve on education boards, speak to classes and kids and support internships.

Secrist agreed.

“We need industry to say, ‘Here’s what I can offer and here is what we need,’” she said. “We have a serious work force gap.”

Andrews said Boise State is supporting other ways for students to “demonstrate competency” besides earning a four-year degree, such as earning certificates or badges that document to employers some form of learning.

“We need to think about what our needs are coming down the road,” said Gordon Jones, the founding dean of the College of Innovation and Design with Boise State University.

Tuesday’s 90-minute event is part of a series of breakfast conversations hosted by the Idaho Business Review.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is housed under Boise State University’s College of Education, and its staffers are BSU employees.