Business Profile: Labor shortage not so easily solved

Economist Lisa Grigg says building more housing in north central Idaho could help fill crucial job openings in the area

This article originally was published in the Lewiston Tribune. It is republished here with permission.

Lisa Grigg, labor economist with the Idaho Department of Labor, poses for a photo at her desk Wednesday in Lewiston. August Frank/Tribune

Constructing more housing might help ease a labor shortage in north central Idaho driven by an aging population.

That observation comes from Lisa Grigg, an economist with the Idaho Department of Labor who is based in Lewiston.

“Our area has under-built for the past decade,” she said. “We just don’t have space for those people who are in their 20s and have a great job and are making a solid income. There’s no places for them to rent and housing prices are out of reach for most.”

Even nurses who earn $70,000 to $80,000 annually, not counting benefits, struggle to find affordable housing, which makes it difficult to recruit people from outside the area to the profession hit hardest by the labor shortage, Grigg said.

“Behind every job is a person,” she said. “That person has to have a place to live and they have to know if there will be high-quality schools for their kids and good recreation.”

Grigg took her position in January 2022, just as the present labor shortage was intensifying. She succeeded Kathryn Tacke, who had held the job for more than a decade until her death in 2021.

Grigg’s job involves watching what businesses are opening, closing, hiring or expanding. She tracks wages, population growth or decline and the cost of living to understand how the economy is performing in the moment and where it’s heading in coming months and years.

The Idaho Department of Labor uses that work to develop strategies for employers to fill vacant jobs and to match those seeking work with positions.

Much of her focus has been following the scarcity of workers, which is part of a broader labor shortage in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the nation.

Only about 20 new initial unemployment claims are being filed every week in north central Idaho, where about 100 individuals are continuing to file unemployment claims and actively seeking work, Grigg said.

An Idaho Department of Labor survey in late winter and early spring of north central Idaho employers found that 75% of jobs were unfilled a month after they were posted.

Behind nurses, the highest volume of openings are for retail sales employees and truck drivers, she said.

In this environment, employers have to show they value their staff members by offering wages that are as good, if not better, than competitors, and other perks such as signing bonuses and flexible schedules, Grigg said.

“In order to get an employee, you’re poaching off another business,” she said.

Raising compensation isn’t the only strategy employers are using.

Some businesses are giving referral bonuses to current employees who help locate new staff members if they stay six months or longer.

In manufacturing, a sector responsible for 20% of the jobs in Nez Perce County at businesses such as Clearwater Paper, CCI/Speer and Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, automation is becoming more common, Grigg said.

“You have so many manufacturing employers that say they can’t get the number of people they need and they really have no choice but to automate,” she said.

An aging labor force is the primary cause behind the scarcity of people to fill jobs, Grigg said. The number of people reaching retirement age is already outpacing the number of people joining the workforce when they turn 16 years old in the region and that trend is expected to accelerate in the coming decade, she said.

At the same time, more people are working in fields such as manufacturing and fewer individuals are employed in nursing and hospitality partly because of how stressful the COVID-19 pandemic made those professions, Grigg said.

The person who used to be your waiter might be employed in a factory, working regular full-time hours and receiving health and retirement benefits and paid vacation, she said.

“They’re not having to deal with the public,” Grigg said. “In a tight labor market like this, your employees have leverage.”

A smaller, harder-to-track factor involves workforce participation. It peaked at 70% in Idaho in 1998 and fell from 64% just before the pandemic to 62% now, she said. The statistic isn’t tracked regionally and involves a variety of challenges.

A very small number of those individuals likely would prefer to work but are stranded caring for aging parents or children because their families can’t afford nursing homes or day care. Or they might lack adequate transportation.

“There’s a misperception that people are sitting around their house waiting for unemployment checks,” Grigg said. “That is not what’s happening.”

The tight labor market isn’t the only trend Grigg is seeing as she watches how the economy adjusts after the COVID-19 pandemic.

More students, including ones who earn high grades, are choosing to complete high school online or seek their GED instead of in person because they can go at their own pace and finish faster, she said.

She wonders what that will mean for the productivity of the workforce in the future.

“There are pieces of the maturity process and the skills employers need (that online students) will be lacking,” Grigg said. “That is having empathy, communicating a problem in a way that someone understands, maintaining your emotions, remaining professional and using the right words and body language.”

What’s happening right now is a situation that’s complicated and doesn’t lend itself to easy solutions, she said.

But one approach might involve paying more attention to people’s mental health, whether it’s a teenager who feels overwhelmed in a traditional high school setting or a burned-out employee considering a new job, Grigg said.

“When people feel like they’re part of a team and they are wanted and needed, that’s important,” she said.

Williams may be contacted at or (208) 848-2261.