A project of the Partnership for a New American Economy
Idaho has long been home to a thriving population of immigrants. Moses Alexander, a German immigrant who served as governor of Idaho from 1915-1919, was the second elected Jewish governor of a US state. In 1895, Alexander led an effort to build the Ahavath Beth Israel synagogue, the first in Idaho. Today, it is the oldest active synagogue west of the Mississippi River.
Though the state’s immigrant population is small in real terms, the growth of the state’s foreign born population has accelerated in recent years: according to analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, from 2000 to 2011, the number of immigrants in Idaho grew by 45 percent, well above the national average, and in 2011, nearly 93,000 people in the state were foreign born.
Size of foreign-born population
Percent of state’s population that is immigrant
Growth in foreign-born population 2000-2010
In the coming years, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, are projected to be a key driver of US economic growth, adding jobs 73 percent faster than the rest of the economy. Fixing the US immigration system to make it easier for students trained in America to remain in the country after graduation will be critical for Idaho: in 2009, 30 percent of the students earning Master’s or PhD degrees in STEM from the state’s research-intensive universities were temporary residents, a group with no clear path to stay in America after collecting their diplomas.
Share of STEM graduates at state's most research-intensive schools who are foreign born (2009): 30%
Share of foreign born advanced degree workers in STEM fields (2000): 2.7%
Share of foreign born advanced degree workers in STEM fields (2010): 10.6%
Increase in share of foreign born STEM workers: 292%
Immigration Reform = Economic Growth in Idaho
Reforming our immigration system will generate millions of dollars and thousands of jobs across Idaho. According to Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI), undocumented immigrants who enroll in a legal path to citizenship will generate more than 1,600 jobs and more than $100 million for the state by 2020. Expanding the number of both high-skilled (H-1B) visas will also have positive economic effects. REMI estimates that expansion of the H-1B program would result in more than 620 jobs and add more than $46 million to Gross State Product by 2014.
In Idaho, creating a path to citizenship and expanding the high-skilled visa program would add a total of more than $70 million to Gross State Product in 2014.
Immigrant entrepreneurs have long contributed to Idaho’s economic success, including Frank Robert Gooding, who immigrated to the United States from England in 1867. After moving to Idaho in 1881, he became one of the state’s largest sheep owners. Gooding was a singular force in establishing sheep farming as a long-term thriving industry in Idaho, which is currently the 7th largest sheep producer in the country. Gooding was also active in Idaho politics: he was elected Governor in 1906 and US Senator in 1920. The city of Gooding and Gooding County were named after Gooding in recognition of his contribution to the state of Idaho.
Idaho lacks the workers it needs in STEM areas, fields that help the economy remain innovative and competitive. According to the nonpartisan advocacy group Change the Equation, from 2009 to 2011, 2.4 STEM jobs were posted online in Idaho for every one unemployed STEM worker in the state. Foreign STEM workers can help fill this shortage in Idaho as they have in other states.
Ratio of STEM jobs to unemployed STEM workers: 2.4:1
Number of physicians per 100,000 residents: 182.4, or 49th among states
Projected shortage of nurses by 2020: 6,106
Share of all nursing positions vacant by 2020: 59.1%
Idaho currently has 182.4 active physicians per 100,000 people in the state, making it 49th in the country in physician density and indicating a need for qualified doctors today. 23.3 percent of active physicians are age 60 or older, indicating that many of Idaho’s current doctors will leave the workforce soon.
Foreign workers in Idaho are also helping to create jobs in the state through seasonal and temporary work. According to the US Department of Labor, Idaho employers were granted certifications to bring in 1,253 workers on H-2B visas in fiscal year 2011. These visas, often used to staff places like amusement parks, hotels, or landscaping services during peak seasons, spur economic growth by allowing the participating companies to take on more workers. A study by the Partnership for a New American Economy and the American Enterprise Institute found that for every 100 H-2B visa workers, 464 jobs are created or preserved for American born workers. In Idaho, that means the 1,253 visas authorized in FY 2011 supported more than 5,800 American jobs across the broader economy.
Idaho H-2B Visas (FY 2011): 1,253
Jobs Created: 5,814
According to Bob Lokken, CEO and founder of WhiteCloud Analytics in Boise, a drought in Idaho’s technological workforce is sending companies and new start-ups out of state. The problem is not new or unique to Idaho, Lokken notes. “Demand in the economy for people who have highly technical degrees is skyrocketing because we are moving into a digital, information-based economy and a very technical economy. And that’s where a lot of the growth is coming.”
Even so, Idaho companies are having a hard time finding workers, especially in software engineering, he says. “If I have an opening in communications in my company, it’s not unrealistic for me to expect 15 to 20 resumes of highly qualified candidates within the first week,” he says. “If I have an engineering manager or a test manager in the engineering department that I need, it’s not uncommon for me to take six to nine months to find a person.”
The technology industry makes up 18 percent of Idaho’s economy, a number that has grown significantly in the past 30 years.
STEM jobs typically require post-secondary degrees and advanced skills in math and science, and Idaho youth might not be as inclined to become a software engineer or a data analyst because the rewards are not as clear. “You can see what a carpenter does, somebody who builds a house, you can see it,” Lokken said. “…And you can see on TV, a surgeon and a doctor and what they do. What software people do is mostly between their ears.”
But Lokken notes that the work could be interesting to prospective students of software engineering if framed differently. “If you’re into solving complex puzzles, this is pretty interesting and pretty rewarding work.”
Lokken is hopeful for the future of Idaho’s tech industry, but he says the so-called drought is not going to get better by itself. He believes it will take a collaborative effort from the business community, the government and educators. “I’m optimistic because we’ve made a lot of progress in certain areas,” he said, “but we certainly have a lot more work to do.”
Immigrants are helping to grow the US economy everywhere, not just in the places—like our biggest cities—that we expect. They are helping to fill labor shortages on America’s farms, starting businesses that employ US workers, and developing the cutting-edge products that make America the world’s preeminent innovation hub.
Click on a state to learn more about the contributions immigrants are making to the local economy.