Education has a big tent

Statewide emergencies led to the formation of several task forces in recent years to address very fundamental Idaho values: jobs, opportunity, prosperity, and security for our families. Education, job training, and skilled-based instruction need to reach every corner of the state. I am proud to be part of one of the organizations tasked with spreading opportunity and cultivating talent throughout Idaho – the Workforce Development Council.

The Council’s meeting last week was an eye-opener. According to the Department of Labor, Idaho dropped to 44th in the nation in average annual income. As a result, Idaho’s young men and women are leaving the state for better opportunities. They are being replaced by an older population from out-of-state. The effects of low wages and limited employment opportunity are being felt most severely in the rural areas of the state. As a legislator representing the people of Camas, Gooding, Lincoln and Blaine counties, I am concerned, to say the least.

We believe that empowering Idahoans in Twin Falls is just as important as empowering Idahoans in Coeur d’Alene, Pocatello, Burley, or Boise. But much more needs to be done. Just this week, the STEM Action Center issued a report to the legislature showing 6,328 STEM-related jobs (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Math”) went unfilled in Idaho last year, resulting in $412 million in unpaid wages. That pencils out to more than $47,000 an hour — of every hour, of every day of the year.

Too often, “education” is linked with four-year degrees or higher. But many of those good-paying STEM jobs can be filled with various trade skills and certifications. Last summer, Idaho State University’s Dean of the College of Technology told legislators that ISU could not produce enough skilled welders to meet demand. He also said businesses were calling him on a regular basis, telling him to send as many machinists as he could.

Idaho should value carpenters the same way it values architects; value electricians the same way it values engineers, and value skilled workers the same way it values entrepreneurs. Indeed, it would benefit all of us if Idaho fostered a culture where skilled workers and entrepreneurs were one and the same.

This week at the State Capitol we recognized the Idahoans who prosper from career-technical programs, apprenticeships, and job-training initiatives. All of these people are members of Idaho’s educated workforce and key to our collective future. They represent the best and the brightest Idaho has to offer in a variety of fields. It’s time we adopted policies which grow their numbers rather than inhibit them.

If Idaho is to be competitive in the quickly evolving needs of industry, we must concentrate on results. STEM skills and trade apprenticeships are critical to the success of our workers. I want all of my constituents to have a fair shot at this success no matter where they live.

Learning, in all of its forms, is not just a year-round pursuit, but a lifetime one. No one should be stuck in a part-time job when they need a full-time job. We seek opportunity for a lifetime of prosperity.

A big tent can, and must, cover everyone.

Written by Sen. Michelle Stennett, the Senate Democratic Leader who represents Camas, Gooding, Lincoln and Blaine Counties.

 

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