By Shelby Rognstad
Last week the city co-hosted the first ever Manufacturer’s Summit here in Sandpoint. Roughly 40 business leaders from the region gathered with a few elected officials and educators to identify challenges to business success. Most of these employers represented the technology industry. Manufacturing contributes to a diversified economy with year-round employment and living wages. Wages typically are significantly higher with high tech manufacturing. A diversified economy is resilient, supports small business across sectors and creates a higher quality of life for all.
There was one issue that stood out among everyone attending the summit: education. Specifically, there was unanimous consent on the inadequacy of education and workforce training to support job growth in our community. This has a compound effect. Employers have difficulty finding the trained and skilled workforce needed to support growth. As a result they are continually pressured to relocate someplace where hiring is easier. At the same time, they often have to recruit outside of the community to find the more skilled and educated talent they seek. Often, the greatest obstacle to recruiting that talent is the perception of an inadequate school system. These people seek opportunity not just for themselves, but for the families as well. Just like us, they want a high quality of life AND a high-quality education for their children.
Our experience locally is not unique. Over the last couple of years the Departments of Commerce and Labor have similarly identified education, specifically the shortage of a skilled and educated workforce, as the major impediment to economic growth and prosperity for Idaho into the future. Idaho is one of the fastest growing economies in the nation. Job growth in technology in particular is outpacing workforce development, and the trend is increasing. Meanwhile our most talented youth are leaving to cities and states that prioritize funding education. We can reverse the brain drain by investing in education right here. Today’s high tech employers are agile. If we don’t respond to the call for workforce development, they will soon locate somewhere that does.
Fortunately, the governor and the state legislature see the writing on the wall. Idaho has passed a budget increase for the second year in a row ($100 million this year). Yet still Idaho education funding is below pre-recession levels. Our high schools rank 43rd in the nation (2016) while our nation as a whole ranked 36th globally (K-12). Most states offer better teacher wages and pay more per student. Fortunately, Sandpoint High School ranks seventh among high schools in the state and our District as a whole ranks 24th, well above average. This is a real accomplishment considering funding for LPOSD is below the state average for school districts.
We need to give students the exposure and experiences they need to be prepared to enter the job market or continue on to higher education. This means not just experience in the classroom, but the extra-curricular activities that build teamwork, communication, leadership skills and self-confidence. These qualities don’t just make better workers, they make better people. These kind of people want to do their best. They care to contribute to society. We also need to pay our teachers a reasonable wage so that we attract and retain quality educators that have the skill and dedication to ensure their students’ success.
If we are to be prosperous into the future, we need to invest in K-12 and in post-secondary education opportunities right here so that we can stop the brain drain to outside communities, states and employers. We all know this is a great place to live, but if our youth do not have opportunities locally to deepen their knowledge, skill sets, or to find quality employment right out of school, they will leave seeking greener pastures. At the same time, we have our best employers who are continually pressured to relocate someplace else where they can find a reliable workforce.
The community will continue to be prosperous to the extent that we invest in our schools locally. If we invest in education, we invest in our youth; we invest in our economy and we invest in lasting prosperity for all.