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Idaho House panel approves targeted workforce training for high school grads

Idaho Launch began in 2020 as a workforce training program for adult workers.

An Idaho state House committee on Tuesday approved a proposal to expand a job training program intended to drive students toward careers where there are labor shortages.

Governor Brad Little proposes to give as much as $8,500 to cover some or all of the training costs for new high school graduates who want to pursue high-demand careers such as nursing, welding and truck driving. Little’s plan would expand the Idaho Launch program that was started in 2020 with federal pandemic relief money to help adults with job training.

“This is a workforce development program and what we’re trying to do is invest in our workforce and make sure that Idaho graduates are getting Idaho jobs,” said Rep. Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett), who presented the plan Tuesday to members of the House Education Committee.

Little proposes to pay for the expansion with $80 million from the state’s In-Demand Careers Fund. The bill would also end two of the state’s scholarship programs, including the Opportunity Scholarship, though current recipients would continue to receive their rewards. The money from those, an estimated $22 million, would be redirected to the Idaho Launch project.

Blanksma says students could use the money to enroll in Idaho’s universities or community colleges or in specialized public or private sector training programs.

“The availability of skilled workers is the number one challenge facing Idaho employers today. This piece of legislation will get more skilled workers through their doors,” said Cally Roach, a member of the Idaho Board of Education who said she was testifying in a personal capacity. “Idaho Launch reaches a group of students that previously may have been excluded because of average grades and the inability to pay for ongoing education. Both rural and urban students will benefit.”

Idaho’s rate for high schoolers immediately enrolling in college or career/tech programs after graduation has continually fallen – sitting at 38% in 2021.

Rep. Julie Yamamoto (R-Caldwell), a former high school principal, said cost is a major factor in that decline.

"Students who I tried to encourage to go on over and over again would say whether the program was $7,000, it might as well have been $7 million to them," she said.

Several representatives from industry groups also expressed their support. But others questioned what they view as the program’s high cost and whether it’s the role of government to provide and pay for workforce training programs for private companies.

“Industries and companies have a vested interest in their employees and have an opportunity to develop their workforce on their own, without taking from John Q. Public,” said Rep. Tony Wisniewski (R-Post Falls). “Every dollar that we spend, we have to take from somebody else.”

Rep. Ron Mendive (R-Coeur d'Alene) says adults should be responsible for paying for their own education – something he did with his children.

"We wanted them to have skin in that game and that’s what’s missing here. People need to take responsibility," he said.

The bill advanced to the House floor on a 10-7 vote with the three Democrats on the committee joining seven Republicans, including Yamamoto, in voting yes. Wisniewski and Mendive were two of seven Republicans, including four from north Idaho, to vote no.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.