A new report from the Lumina Foundation contains disappointing news for Idaho.
The report says that only 37.7 percent of Idaho’s citizens hold an educational credential higher than a high school diploma. That places Idaho 46th among the states, with West Virginia, Nevada, Alabama and Mississippi lagging behind. Not the best of company.
The Lumina report is sobering for two reasons.
First, research shows that Idaho’s employers need between 60-68 percent of their workers to hold a postsecondary credential by the year 2020. Lumina’s report shows that no Idaho county has more than 60 percent of its workers holding these credentials. The highest is Latah with 55 percent – equal to the No. 1 state in the country, Massachusetts.
The other troubling finding is that Idaho’s percentage of educated workers has remained essentially flat for seven years. That despite the state setting the goal of having 60 percent of our 25-34 year olds holding a postsecondary credential.
There are two ways we can respond to this report.
The first is to say that the state’s 60 percent goal is unattainable because the gap is so large. Unfortunately, we already hear some leaders say the goal can’t be achieved so we should either abandon, lower or delay it. The second response is to double down on our efforts to get to a more educated Idaho.
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Shelving the goal has little material effect except admitting we can’t reach higher. For Idaho’s employers this is not an academic exercise. Goal or no goal they still need 60 percent of their workers to hold a postsecondary credential.
Many Idaho employers are already finding it difficult to hire the workers they need. Last winter three high-tech executives told legislators that the only thing stopping them from expanding was a shortage of trained workers. But it’s not just high-tech companies feeling the pinch; so are manufacturing companies.
Unfortunately for Idaho’s economy, if we don’t have more educated workers we risk losing existing companies to other states and not attracting new businesses that pay good wages.
So what can we do about this?
Most importantly we need our citizens – especially parents and students – to recognize the importance of obtaining postsecondary education that can lead to a good career. Without this too many of our young people will be stuck in low-paying jobs and Idaho will be deprived of the skilled workers it needs for a vital economy.
State leaders must also continue the progress they’ve made the last two years by adopting the policies and investments that improve our educational outcomes and remove the roadblocks that prevent more students from obtaining a credential.
This means strengthening our education system and eliminating costly remediation for those who go on. It means reaching Idaho’s low-income students who lag far behind their peers in educational attainment. It means making postsecondary education more affordable through scholarships and investing in higher education. It means helping the 224,000 Idahoans with some college finish their degree.
None of this will be easy. Idahoans will have to reach higher, invest more in education and focus single-mindedly on student achievement. But if we do these things we can strengthen our economy and improve the quality of life for all Idahoans.
Rod Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.