Building a skilled workforce in Idaho

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(Photo by MARY MALONE) John Russ, regional manager for the Idaho Department of Labor in the Meridian area, addressed Idaho's apprenticeship opportunities during Thursday's "What's Happening Up North" summit, hosted by the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation.

SANDPOINT — Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter established a 17-member task force in 2017 to look at workforce development in Idaho.

Wendi Sechrist, executive director of the Idaho Workforce Development Council, said the goal of the Workforce Development Task Force is to make recommendations, using available resources to make sure Idaho is going to have a workforce that meets its needs. One of the things the task force recognized early on, she said, was that workforce development is a shared responsibility.

“We all have a role in this and we have to work collectively and collaboratively in order to make sure that we are going to have the workforce, not only that we need today, but 10 years from now,” Sechrist said.

Sechrist was one of several speakers Thursday at this year’s “What’s Happening Up North” collaborative workshop, which featured the theme “Housing and Labor Issues and Solutions.” The economic summit is hosted by the Bonner County Economic Development Corporation in conjunction with the Boundary County EDC and cities of Sandpoint and Ponderay.

As per the theme, Sechrist addressed some of the labor issues and solutions, focusing on the task force and its recommendations, which revolved around four broad themes. The first, she said, was to coordinate efforts across the state agencies. Based on the task force recommendations, Otter decided the Workforce Development Council, which had been advisory to the Department of Labor, should move within the office of the governor, she said. This would allow them to work with state agencies and ensure resources are being invested effectively, as well as projecting what resources would be needed to invest in workforce development in the future.

A second recommendation was to make sure there is a sustainable funding mechanism. The state has a workforce development training fund, she said, that is used to help employers train employees when they are expanding their businesses or investing in new technologies. The third recommendation revolved around public engagement, Sechrist said, because while the state can invest in education and training programs, that won’t solve any problems if nobody knows about it.

“They recognized that there isn’t anyone making a concerted effort to make sure that our youth, and our transitioning adults, know what job opportunities are there and how they would get the training to access those types of job opportunities.”

The final recommendation was to connect education with careers. Postsecondary education is a pathway to a career, Sechrist said.

“The job is the outcome, not the degree,” she said. “So how do we set up this system in the state that starts to value all pathways to careers, but is putting careers first? ... Making sure that we are connecting education to careers is just a high priority in the state and we’ve got some amazing resources that are being invested.”

This year, she said, the state dedicated $9 million to Idaho school districts for the sole purpose of college and career advising, with the goal of helping kids make those connections.

Research shows that workplace learning has the best return on investment in connecting people to careers, Sechrist said. When there is an opportunity to learn something and then apply it in a work setting, the learning becomes meaningful, she said. For example, Sechrist said, a welding student who doesn’t like math will begin to see the real-world applications of trigonometry, and suddenly it becomes relevant.

One solution to creating a skilled workforce is apprenticeships.

John Russ, regional manager for the Idaho Department of Labor in the Meridian area, said the national Registered Apprenticeship program dates back to the Great Depression era, 1937, when employers were in need of workers with specific qualifications.

As a society, we decided college was more important,” Russ said. “So we did away with those types of trainings.”

Fast forwarding to today, Russ said, the message is clear — employers want skilled employees. For that reason Registered Apprenticeship was revived. Apprenticeship Idaho is a Registered Apprenticeship program administered through the Idaho Department of Labor.

“The state has really put a lot of effort and time into helping business build apprenticeships, because we can not do anything without business,” Russ said.

Apprenticeships benefit employers, he said, because retention rates increase and they can save money by bringing the apprentice in at a lower wage, offsetting some of the training cost.

Locally, Idaho Forest Group in Laclede is one of hundreds of employers, associations and labor unions that have implemented apprenticeship programs across the state. In the youth apprenticeship program, students are hired as an apprentice while they are still in high school, as was the case with IFG. To date, there are more than 1,500 apprentices statewide, Russ said.

“When I compare Idaho to other states, I see Idaho should probably be at about 5,000 apprentices,” Russ said. “That’s where I want to be.”

To accomplish that, he said, he has to have business there with him, developing these programs across the state. Any business, no matter how big or small, can start an apprenticeship program through the Idaho Department of Labor, he said.

“Our vision is to help Idaho business find that skilled workforce and show you the resources that are available to help you build this workforce,” Russ said.

Information: apprenticeshipidaho.com

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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