Idaho Business Review
by Simon Shifrin
Published Jan. 6,2011
Jon Carter hated to leave Boise, but he didn’t feel like he could risk staying around. Carter, who moved to the city in 2000 to take a job with the mobile software company Extended Systems and later worked as a product manager for Hewlett Packard, had too many friends who lost their six-figure-salary jobs and were only making half the pay.
Even though his job was safe, he left in July 2009 to take a job as a product manager with Dell Inc. in Austin, Texas, after the company recruited him.
“I suffered through that decision a lot,” he said. “But from a professional standpoint, I was like, ‘It’s stupid not to do it.’ There weren’t really any job opportunities out there that I could see [in Boise], whereas I had multiple job opportunities in Austin.”
While Boise has seen an influx of retirees and young professionals in recent years, the city also seems to be losing some of its highest-skilled workers, the kind that rake in big salaries or create jobs by starting new companies.
The retirees come with money, but they tend to spend on services rather than investing in emerging industries that create high-paying jobs.
Bob Lokken, CEO of WhiteCloud Analytics, has started recruiting outside of Idaho less than two years after launching his new software company, which focuses on analytic solutions for health care systems. WhiteCloud Analytics employs two dozen people, most with six-figure salaries.
“The local talent pool is getting more and more restricted to the point that there are very few options for me locally,” he said. “We’ve more than doubled our headcount in the last 12 months. But I couldn’t double it in the next 12 months because I can’t find the people.”
In the high-tech industry, which accounts for many of the state’s high-salary jobs, the number of businesses grew from 3,218 in 2002 to 4,713 in 2009. But at the same time, the high-tech employment count dropped from 54,033 in 2002 to 49,349 in 2009, including an 11 percent decline from 2008 to 2009, according to an August report by the Idaho Department of Labor. Much of that drop is attributed to layoffs at Micron Technology Inc. and Hewlett Packard, though the numbers are otherwise stagnant.
A population forecast by Moscow firm EMSI actually predicts a drop in the 20-29 and 45-54 age groups and dramatic jumps in the state’s over-55 population between 2010 and 2020, said Bob Uhlenkott, chief research officer for the labor department.
The 20-29 age group is expected to drop in raw numbers from 224,455 to 214,076, while the 70-74 cohort is predicted to grow 66 percent and the 65-69 population by 51 percent. The 20-29 group’s share of the total population may be lower than the national average by that time.
“It will have been many decades since that was the case,” Uhlenkott said. “That’s quite a dramatic shift. If indeed the numbers continue to shift like this, Idaho’s robust economic growth could be compromised.”
Boise Young Professionals networking group manager Ben Quintana said his sense is newcomers still seem to be balancing out those leaving. BYP averages about 20 new members per month and has maintained membership near 650, not too far off the group’s initial total of 700 in 2006.
And 61 percent of members are not originally from Idaho, Quintana said.
“We’re still bringing in people from out of this area, and that’s a good sign,” he said. “I think that people that want to make things happen are attracted to this area. You can help grow it and shape it. If you’re looking for 200 tech companies all within a three block radius, Boise’s not for you. It may become that in the future, and we’re all working to that, but that’s not it right now, and that’s a fact.”
One newcomer, Peter Vomocil was drawn to Boise by that vision of the future.
After receiving his MBA from the University of Oregon in 2008, Vomocil ran a small marketing consulting firm and served as CEO of a health imaging startup in Eugene, Ore., but the company failed to line up financing during the credit crisis.
Vomocil moved to Boise in mid-August for a job with CLM Marketing & Advertising, though he had originally come to Boise in 2003 for a four-month job with the Idaho Shakespeare Festival and ended up staying for three years.
It was the growing number of startups in the city and the easy access to skiing and the outdoors that lured him back.
“I had other positions that I could have taken that would have been more lucrative,” he said. “But at the end of the day I’m the type of person – I put quality of life ahead of many things. A lot of it was about lifestyle.”
Boise’s way of life isn’t enough for some who are leaving.
Kevin Donaldson, who served as vice president of product management for Balihoo Inc., moved to Bend, Ore., this fall for an opportunity as operations director at a manufacturing plant.
After seven years in Boise, he said he hadn’t planned to leave but was excited by the new opportunity.
“Probably If I had tried, if I had really wanted to stay there, I could have found something,” he said. “My primary reason for leaving was the specific opportunity that was presented to me. Some people sort of sacrifice their job for outdoor pursuits. Me personally, I won’t do that. I have to be fulfilled on both fronts.”