New Labor Regional Economist Discovers Diverse Character of Eastern Idaho

As a new resident of eastern Idaho, I am quickly learning there is much more to this traditionally rural area than I anticipated. Each region in Idaho is immensely different from one another, but eastern Idaho has vast diversity within itself. The rural, scenic, untouched beauty of Custer and Clark counties is hard for many people to find within a reasonable distance of their daily lives. In Idaho, these scenic views are just a couple of hours drive away. The Idaho Falls metropolitan area is alive, well and the forefront of economic mobility in the region. Although small compared to metro areas nationally, swift and advanced development of medical facilities, retail shopping and restaurants makes the Idaho Falls metro area an ideal place for young families or for a retirement in paradise. Along with the many economic upsides, there are also challenges for this part of the state.


Eastern Idaho is made up of nine counties; one urban and eight rural. Each county has experienced population growth within the last few years. Teton County, a rural county and close neighbor of Wyoming, has experienced a 34 percent population hike since 2010. After recently visiting the towns of Victor and Driggs, the reasons behind this rapid growth are clear. These quaint towns are infused with rich culture, diverse food and gorgeous views of the Teton Mountains with the kind of outdoor recreational activities most people dream about. For these reasons and more, there is an influx of migrants – retirees, young outdoor enthusiasts and people of all ages – swarming to these towns looking for adventure.

After traveling to Driggs and discussing hot button economic topics with local residents, it is apparent a retiring workforce is a huge concern for the community. This is a common theme throughout most of the region, and warranted as the 60- 74-year-old population cohort increased more than 50 percent since 2011. In addition to the challenge of replacing this workforce, there is increased pressure on providing services to this group wherever they choose to live.

When visiting Idaho Falls, Driggs or Rexburg it is almost impossible to miss all of the “Help Wanted” signs lining downtown windows. As of June 2016, unemployment in eastern Idaho was 3.3 percent, lower than the state rate of 3.7 percent and significantly lower than the national rate of 4.9 percent. Even with a low unemployment rate, the employment levels in the region are lower than the pre-recession levels.

Household incomes – both urban and rural – are comparatively lower than the national average. The annual per capita personal income in the Idaho Falls metropolitan area is $37,350. While this is higher than the personal per capita income of the state of Idaho at $36,700, it is lower than the nationwide figure of $46,000. This issue also gains a lot of traction within the local communities. For some companies, Idaho’s lower than average wages are an enticing factor for businesses looking to cut back on labor costs.


Average employment trends over the past 16 years in six of eastern Idaho’s major industries show employment in professional, scientific and technical services industry sector carried the highest average employment from 2000 to 2012, thanks to in part to the workforce at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). The high level of employment in this particular industry is unique to eastern Idaho and the region has greatly benefitted from the INL. Following the recession recovery, retail trade and  health care and social services industries have out-performed the professional, scientific and technical services industry. Retail trade is seeing a similar increase. As the Idaho Falls metropolitan area is expanding, retail stores are opening more frequently and employ many workers.

Leisure and hospitality has also experienced steady employment increases since 2009 and was the least affected by the 2008 recession. There is likely still room to grow as many local economic developers and business people agree eastern Idaho has not yet fully realized its potential. Even with the recreational opportunities of the Grand Teton Mountains, Grand Targhee Resort, Yellowstone National Park, Snake River and many other areas, the employment growth associated with these tourist attractions has been minimal. These attractions will prove immensely more beneficial if the surrounding communities surrounding these areas can capitalize on their natural amenities and outdoor recreation opportunities.


Wages have been on the rise for most of eastern Idaho’s traditional industries, with one exception – the information industry. This trend goes hand-in-hand with the employment trend seen earlier. As employment declined in the post-recession period, a decline in total wages followed. However, as Table 3 shows there is still a 10 percent increase of individual annual average wages that could be the result of the leftover jobs being in higher demand, but could also be due to cost of living increases.

Leisure and hospitality, health care and social assistance, and retail trade have experienced full wage recovery since the recession period. However, construction and professional, scientific and technical services have not had full wage recovery. The addition of the Small Modular Nuclear Reactor site at the INL will greatly increase the number of jobs, and higher wages will follow.


Eastern Idaho’s annual average wage growth was the fastest in the construction industry between 2005 and 2015. As eastern Idaho’s educational attainment and economic development advances, we can expect possibly faster wage increases across industries. Professional, scientific and technical services has experienced steady wage growth since 2005, which will likely to continue growing with the addition of INL’s new reactor site.

A lot can be determined about an area based on its educational attainment status. Communities with higher concentrations of educated residents typically have common characteristics that include easy accessibility to postsecondary education, a diverse workforce and high levels of economic growth and expansion. Eastern Idaho is collectively working toward building communities that include these attributes as necessary components for the area’s future. A vast majority of eastern Idaho residents (89 percent) have a high school diploma or higher. Three high schools in Bonneville County rank within the top 20 in the state for the most graduates who attend an Idaho postsecondary educational institution. Together, eastern Idaho’s two postsecondary institutions provide a variety of degree levels and fields of study. Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg has the largest number of private, postsecondary student enrollment in the state. Idaho Falls is home to Eastern Idaho Technical College, which is works to make its degrees attainable on any schedule and even in remote locations. Both of these postsecondary institutions have intuitive program expansion and rapid student enrollment growth.

Like everywhere else, eastern Idaho faces economic challenges, even with its strengths and successes. Challenges more unique to the region include displacement due to transitioning from traditional manual industries caused by a slow recovery from the recession. Investment in more high-tech industries will be crucial to the success of the workers whose incomes declined along with loss of manual industries. Digital literacy for youth in a technologically advancing society is a continuously evolving battle. Even with a slow recovery, innovation and determination for economic development may prove to be a successful pathway for the region. Eastern Idaho is slowly growing, changing and diversifying. As long as opportunity capitalization becomes a priority, these advances will enable the region’s communities to gain traction in economic expansion.

Sources: EMSI, Idaho Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau Economic Analysis, Bureau of Labor Statistics


County Characteristics

Bonneville County
The county is home to Idaho Falls, the fourth largest city in the state. Idaho Falls is home to the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) main office, the state’s fifth-largest employer that employs over 3,900 people with an additional 350 interns. The INL is managed by the Battelle Energy Alliance for the Department of Energy’s Office of Nuclear Energy. Eastern Idaho Technical College, also located in Idaho Falls, provides high quality technical training programs designed to provide up-to-date technical skills needed in the rapidly changing work place. Both Idaho State University and University of Idaho have branches located in Idaho Falls. Bonneville County has a population of 109,803.

Madison County
Rexburg is home to Brigham Young University-Idaho (BYU-I), a private institution operated by The Church of Latter-day Saints. This university is a rapidly growing hub for students seeking higher education. University officials are expecting an enrollment increase of 3,000-4,000 students in the next few years. Madison County has a population of 38,191 people.

Jefferson County
The third most populated county in eastern Idaho is home to 27,376 people. Rigby is the largest city in Jefferson County. It is considered more of a bedroom community because most of its residents commute to work in either Rexburg or Idaho Falls.

Fremont County / Yellowstone Park
This geographic area has interesting attributes. While Fremont County is part of Idaho, a part of Yellowstone National Park resides in this county, and they are often viewed as conjoining areas. Fremont County has seen a slight decline in population growth since last year; currently 12,830 people reside here.

Teton County
This county has seen a small 1.0 percent population growth since 2014 and is home to 10,491 Idaho residents. The city of Driggs is located 12 miles east of the Grand Targhee Resort ski area and within close distance to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort located northwest of Jackson, Wyoming.

Lemhi County
The largest city in Lemhi County is Salmon, which is also the county seat. The population in Lemhi County is currently 7,690 people.

Custer County
This is the largest county, geographically, within eastern Idaho boundaries. This county is home to 4,121 people. This is a rural, mountainous county that relies on industries such as tourism and mining to sustain economic growth.

Butte County
The largest city in Butte County is Arco, which is also the county seat. The county’s population is currently 2,566. In the eastern part of Butte County lies sections of the Idaho National Laboratory.

Clark County
This rural county has seen a 3.0 percent decline in population since 2014 and at 843 people, it is the least populated county in the region. The largest city in Clark County is Dubois, which is also the county seat.

Educational Attainment

Madison County has the highest concentration of people with bachelor’s degrees in eastern Idaho with a 1.19 location quotient, meaning there are 19 percent more people with bachelor’s degrees in the county than the national average. The location quotient is a metric designed to encapsulate concentration compared to a national average, with 1.0 being the same as the national average. This metric is helps highlight specific areas in eastern Idaho that may have over- or under-represented educational attainment groups. Madison County also has a high concentration of associate degree attainment with a location quotient of 2.22. See Table 2 for location quotients by county in the region.


table-5The largest concentration of eastern Idaho residents are below the age of 20. This may seem surprising due to ongoing discussion of the aging population and workforce in Idaho. It’s still important to note that 17.2 percent of the eastern Idaho population is above the age of 60. In whole numbers, 36,621 people are reaching or already have reached retirement age – a large number of people to have to replace and compensate for.

In the past year, the percentage of people whose income level placed them below the poverty line was 15.6 percent in the United States, which is the same as Idaho’s. Throughout most of eastern Idaho the poverty percentage fares well compared with the nation. In Bonneville County 12.7 percent of people live below the poverty line. However, in Madison County 35.7 percent of all people live under the poverty line, which is likely due to the concentrated number of college students in the county.

The construction industry has the largest number of employer establishments in eastern Idaho at 857 as of 2015. A close second, with 815 establishments, is the health care and social assistance industry.


table-6table-7graph-4 Retail sales jobs have increased more than any other occupation from 2014 to 2015 at 123 more jobs.  Personal care aides and waiters have also seen significant job number increases. Occupations showing decreases were fast food cooks, team assemblers and telemarketers.

hot-jobs-table, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 525-7268 ext. 4340