Hiring Challenges Point to a Need for more STEM Workers in Idaho

As Idaho’s employment projections indicate an increased demand for STEM jobs in the next decade, the state’s employers will face even more challenges when filling those positions in the near future if supply does not increase to match the growing need.

With record low unemployment rates in Idaho and the nation as a whole, help wanted ads have languished unfilled for longer stretches of time. Close to 70 percent of the job postings in a given month were unfilled/reposted from the previous month, and more than 50 percent of them have remained unfilled for more than 90 days.

Employers looking for STEM applicants are facing even tougher times given the relatively smaller pool of STEM workers available and the higher educational and training requirements for these jobs. Openings of lengthy duration can be interpreted – with some caution – as a shortage. In that case, targeted occupational and regional STEM training and education would have enormous benefits in addressing a growing need.

Total job openings have slowed as positions become increasingly hard to fill; STEM openings have held steady

Despite Idaho’s steady job growth, there has been a marked decline in the number of help wanted ads since the third quarter of 2015. The number of new online job postings fell from 18,100 in July 2015 to fewer than 7,000 in July 2019, and the share of jobs reposted from month to month has grown to account for nearly 70 percent of all available job ads.

This is largely a reflection of a tight labor market. The unemployed labor supply has been in steady decline since the last recession and has been at about 1:1 with the number of job postings since the third quarter of 2015. As employers find it harder to fill existing openings, they are less likely to post new ones.

The demand for STEM occupations, on the other hand, is steady despite tight labor market conditions. Although STEM occupations generally show a higher share of job postings that go unfilled month to month, new help-wanted ads for STEM jobs declined only slightly in recent years. The average number of new STEM job ads dropped from 1,900 a month in 2015 to 1,600 in 2019 – a 14.5 percent decline. In comparison, non-STEM job ads saw a 46 percent drop in the same timeframe. Total number of available ads for STEM jobs have held steady since 2015.

Defining STEM

To avoid ambiguity, it is necessary to clarify what STEM occupations mean in this analysis. The definition of STEM jobs – science, technology, engineering and math – can vary widely depending on the group using the terminology. The Standard Occupation Classification Policy Committee, made up of representatives of several government agencies, developed two major domains – core STEM and STEM-related occupations, which include occupations that traditionally are not associated with STEM, but are heavily dependent on STEM knowledge. Each domain has two subdomains, which can be categorized into five types of STEM occupations. The following table shows the various STEM occupation groups and employment estimates as of May 2018. This analysis adopts a broader definition of STEM that encompasses all the listed subdomains and types.

Idaho has more than 82,000 core STEM and STEM-related occupations statewide – about 12 percent of total state employment. More than half of these occupations fall under the STEM-related health care subdomain. Of the five STEM occupation types, the largest by far is group A (research, development, design or practitioner occupations) with employment of 46,930 followed by group B (technologist and technician occupations), with employment of 27,580. The remaining three types of STEM occupations have a combined employment totaling fewer than 10,000.

Idaho STEM employment presents opportunity spots

Idaho’s concentration of STEM occupations is low when compared with the rest of the nation – STEM occupations account for nearly 13 percent of total national employment. The occupational location quotient, which measures the concentration of an occupation relative to the nation, is 0.9 for Idaho STEM occupations. A location quotient is particularly useful in identifying the strengths and opportunities for various occupations in a particular region. A location quotient of 1.0 indicates a concentration at par with the national average. A location quotient of greater than 1.0 indicates a regional strength and below 1.0 indicates a concentration below the nation with room for growth. The District of Columbia has the highest location quotient at 1.3 while Nevada has the lowest at 0.65. Idaho’s STEM location quotient is ranked 39th in the nation.

Despite the numerous jobs, the health care STEM subdomain in Idaho has a location quotient of 0.93. The research, development, design or practitioner STEM occupation (Type A), the most numerous of all STEM types, has a location quotient in Idaho that is 15 percent below the national rate of 0.85. Of the five STEM types, only the technicians and technologists (Type B) and the managerial (Type D) have location quotients greater than 1.0. Idaho’s concentration of STEM technicians and technologists is 4 percent greater than national levels while managerial STEM occupations are 6 percent greater than the nation. The architectural STEM subdomain has a location quotient of 1.37 – the highest of all four subdomains. Idaho also has a high concentration of architectural / civil drafters and architectural / engineering managers when compared with the rest of the nation; the concentration of architectural postsecondary teachers in Idaho is more than two times the national average.

Across the state, Idaho Falls – due largely to the presence of the Idaho National Laboratory – has the highest concentration of STEM workers in Idaho and is ranked 95th of 395 metro areas across the nation. The Lewiston metro on the other hand, has the lowest location quotient in Idaho with a concentration less than half of national levels. A relatively low concentration of STEM jobs across the state present an opportunity, especially considering these jobs typically pay 73 percent more than the average Idaho annual wage of $43,480 and nearly twice as much as the average non-STEM job.

Idaho STEM job postings remain unfilled longer

The time it takes to fill a job vacancy is broadly a reflection of a labor shortage. When there are many unemployed workers looking for work, such as during a recession, jobs vacancies fill quickly; likewise, when unemployment falls, as in the recovery from the recession, vacancies generally become harder to fill. While there are a number of other reasons why a job posting remains unfilled – unreasonable wages and / or job expectations and flawed human resources software algorithms – one of the major reasons hard-to-fill vacancies take longer to fill is often due to a lack of qualified candidates.

Data obtained from the Conference Board’s Help Wanted OnLine (HWOL) tracks the age of job postings by occupation as an indicator of hiring difficulty. This is generally the case except for low-skilled occupation positions with high turnover. For such positions, employers face high turnover and a constant need to recruit new employees, and so the employers maintain vacancy advertisements for long periods.

A second caveat with ad duration data is it is not precisely the same concept as vacancy duration. Employers advertise to attract applicants and obtain a pool of suitable candidates. Then, during a selection period, they sift through that pool and conduct interviews. It is not clear at what point in the process advertisements are removed.

Despite these caveats, trends obtained from ad duration data remain a good indicator of labor market conditions and hiring difficulty.

The median duration of job postings in Idaho has risen steadily over the past four years. A snapshot of job postings over the most recent four-month timeframe – May through August 2019 – highlight the following trends:

The median duration of Idaho job postings has been roughly 95 days. STEM job postings have stayed open longer at 110 days on average compared with 92 days for non-STEM postings.

Of all STEM job types, postsecondary teaching STEM positions stayed open the longest at 134 days. Health care practitioner STEM (4-A) jobs remained unfilled for roughly 126 days.

When compared with employment levels, job vacancy duration generally tends to be longer for occupations with lower employment concentration, and that trend carries into STEM vacancies

When combining job postings data with the typical educational requirements of workers in a given occupation, the resulting data shows longer ad durations for occupations requiring higher levels of education. More than 75 percent of STEM job ads have typical entry requirements of a bachelor’s degree or higher – compared with about 18 percent for non-STEM job ads.

Postsecondary STEM teachers are facing the greatest hiring difficulty with health care specialties and nursing instructors being the most numerous hard-to-fill positions in this category. Health care STEM practitioners (4-A) – such as registered nurses and physicians that often require a bachelor’s degree or higher – are generally harder to fill than health care STEM technicians (4-B) with relatively lower skill requirements.

This analysis establishes STEM jobs are relatively more difficult to fill and suggests a shortage of workers with the necessary skills and education to fill job postings.

Esther.Eke@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
Idaho Department of Labor
(208) 236-6710 ext. 4331