Better education creates better opportunities

I am an Idahoan and the CEO of an Idaho-based company. I serve as Vice Chair of Idaho Business for Education (IBE), a non-profit, non-partisan organization of business leaders committed to improving education in Idaho.

I care a great deal about education, but I am not an education expert, I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I certainly respect the education professionals struggling with this issue.

Bob Lokken

But as a business owner, I am frustrated. For my company to succeed, I need top quality employees. All too often, we are hiring
people from outside Idaho – “importing them” if you will – to fill critical, highly paid positions. Why? Because Idaho’s education system is not producing graduates with the skills we need. And that’s a problem.

We have the raw talent right here. What we need is more educational opportunities to ensure that our kids have good jobs and our businesses have quality employees.

Idaho’s State Board of Education has a goal of seeing 60 percent of our students complete some form of post-secondary education – a college degree or a certificate of technical training – by 2020. The fastest-growing high wage jobs require at least some post-secondary education. But if the status quo continues, there is no way that goal will be met.

The IBE recently prepared a “Field Guide” to public education in Idaho. This booklet includes a wide range of studies and rankings from government and respected non-profit organizations. Unfortunately, it paints a sobering picture. Idaho continues to rank near the bottom nationally in many critical measures:

  • Idaho ranks 47th among all states in the proportion of students who graduate from high school on time and go directly to college.
  • Of those students, Idaho ranks 46th in the proportion of students who return for their second year of college.
  • Of the students who do return for a second year, Idaho ranks 41st in students who graduate within 150 percent of program time.

It is difficult to look at these numbers and not conclude that we face an education crisis in Idaho. Consider this: Forty years ago, only 27 percent of the nation’s 93 million workers were educated beyond high school. By 2007, the work force had exploded to 154 million workers, but 59 percent had education beyond high school. While the total number of jobs grew by 63 million, the number held by people with no post-secondary education fell by two million. All deep research indicates this trend will continue.

The message is clear. All net job growth over the past four decades was generated by positions requiring at least some post-secondary education. Today education beyond high school is essentially a pre-requisite for success in the work place.

Clearly we have a problem. Today precision manufacturers can’t find workers with appropriate technical skills. High-tech companies have to recruit out of state – or leave the state. Hospitals and rural clinics lack trained medical staff. The evidence is all around us.

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter has established a Task Force comprised of education professionals and stakeholders to review the problem and make recommendations. I am honored to participate. Policy makers, elected officials, education leaders, and other stakeholders are working together to make recommendations. My only hope is that we act quickly.

The business community may not have all the answers, but as employers, we certainly have a sense of urgency. The jobs are available now. We want to hire well-educated, well-prepared Idaho graduates who can help us succeed by succeeding themselves. The longer we wait, the more opportunities are lost.