Panelists representing the region's largest employers discussed their companies' greatest challenges, hopes and frustrations when they participated in a recent Eastern Idaho Outlook conference at the elegant Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel in Fort Hall.
Sponsored by the Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho (REDI), Colliers International, Idaho Central Credit Union (ICCU), Hirning Buick/GMC of Pocatello and Portneuf Health Partners, the April 24 conference drew more than 200 government and business leaders from throughout the area.
Moderated by Jim Shipman, Colliers International's Idaho managing partner, the panel discussion featured:
Brian Berrett, ICCU chief financial officer.
Drew Facer, Idahoan Foods president and chief executive officer.
Amy Lientz, Idaho National Laboratory (INL) stakeholder and education partnerships director.
Dan Ordyna, Portneuf Health Partners chief executive officer.
Luke Stumme, U.S. government facilities chief.
Donald Zebe, Colliers International brokerage services vice president.
All of the panelists essentially agreed that Eastern Idaho is on the verge of explosive growth from Rexburg to Pocatello and discussed how that can be effectively managed and anticipated. In introductory remarks, Shipman noted that Idaho continues to boom as Californians and others keep migrating to the state. “It's on everybody's radar,” he said.
Stumme moved to Pocatello about nine months ago from Washington D.C., where he lived for seven years, calling it the best decision he has ever made. He is overseeing the FBI's $100 million expansion of its Pocatello data center. He said Pocatello reminds him of Boulder and Golden, Colorado. He earned a bachelor of science degree in engineering from the Colorado School of Mines.
The FBI plans to hire at least 300 new employees in Pocatello the next two years and annually invest $65 million in Eastern Idaho. Stumme predicted Pocatello will become “Headquarters West” for the FBI, which employs 10,000 people in Washington – where it is getting to be exorbitantly expensive and highly congestive to live. The FBI's training academy is situated on 547 acres at the immense Marine Corps base near Quantico, Virginia.
In February 2018, the FBI announced it would shift about 2,500 jobs across four states, including Idaho, from its Washington headquarters. The Pocatello FBI data center will be the most energy efficient data center in the Justice Department, Stumme said.
Last November, the FBI said it would move 1,350 personnel and contractors to Huntsville, Alabama, and eventually expand its site there by between 4,000 and 5,000 jobs. About 300 are employed there now. A $350 million support building is expected to be completed there by 2021.
The FBI has 39,000 employees worldwide and the highest retention rate of any federal department or agency, Stumme said. Many FBI employees are coming to Pocatello from Washington, but those hired externally must pass background clearances, which can be difficult, he pointed out.
“One of our biggest challenges is background screening where there is only a 30 percent pass rate,” Stumme said, which can be alleviated by hiring contractors who already have security clearances. There also are limits for staff funding, he said, mentioning the FBI is increasing the number of agents hired while support personnel numbers are decreasing.
Stumme praised the relatively close proximity of Idaho State University and BYU-Idaho in the region. “People from here want to stay here because of the whole area,” he said, adding those who move to Idaho can afford housing as opposed to heavily populated places where “you can sit in a car for 40 minutes to go eight miles.”
Ordyna said Portneuf's top priorities are recruiting and talent management. “Burnout” is the biggest concern in the health care industry as “Millennials” put greater emphasis on maintaining a work life balance rather than work 24/7 at a “365 days shop,” the medical center CEO said.
Portneuf's biggest impediment for retaining qualified personnel is when nurses graduate most of them must move and live outside Idaho because there are no jobs for their spouses and pay is greater in states like Utah, Ordyna said. “Nurses can get jobs wherever they go.”
He said without question the general sentiment seems to be: “Don't tell anybody about the secret gem of Idaho” because otherwise more people will move here, and it will become a California. He said Eastern Idaho must be smart about its growth because growth is still needed.
Ordyna said Portneuf and its board of directors are committed to making a significant investment in 20 acres of the Northgate Project under development as a master planned community that is designed for housing, a technology park and a shopping district. ICCU also has committed to constructing a new branch there.
“Eastern Idaho's going to blow up,” he remarked, noting housing costs are getting terribly expensive in Utah and people there will be looking for a cheaper living alternative. Conditions also are exceptional for attracting good companies, Ordyna added.
Colliers International's Zebe observed that construction of a major new LDS temple in the Northgate district also promises to propel economic growth. He noted that construction of such temples in Layton, Utah, Meridian, Twin Falls and St. Louis all attracted businesses like magnets.
Seventy-five homes in the upper $400,000 range under construction at Northgate have all sold, with 55 expected to be completed by the end of June, Zebe said. “There's a housing shortage in the whole region. We've got to address it.”
Berrett said ICCU's main objective is to sell itself as a company to potential out-of-state recruits who also consider an area's culture, outdoors, traffic and school systems. Low unemployment numbers make it more difficult for businesses to hire qualified prospects when those individuals get two or three job offers, he said.
“It's difficult to find good employees,” Berrett said, noting a company can offer generous salaries and benefits, but the area's housing shortage can prove to be a disincentive. “We've lost a few potential candidates.”
More tech jobs are required due to companies needing larger information technology departments, the ICCU CFO said, adding a company's “selling process” takes time. He discouraged the attitude of telling people to stay away from Idaho. “We have to be willing to grow. Otherwise, we are slowly deteriorating or dying.”
Lientz stressed it was her opinion that INL's energy and security priorities will spawn new companies in the region, especially as the Naval Reactors Facility's $1.6 billion expansion gets under way, and INL focuses on developing small modular reactors, micro reactor technology and the Versatile Test Reactor, which is critical for innovative nuclear fuels, materials, instrumentation and sensors.
INL is reaping benefits of partnering with area universities and community colleges, she said, mentioning it also is getting more involved in developing high performing computers. As its technology advancements are being watched on the world stage, INL must recruit top world scientists and engineers, making them feel welcome, she said, advocating nature conservancy and land trusts as a means of attracting qualifying personnel to the region.
Facer said productivity is key to Idahoan Foods' success. Based in Idaho Falls, it specializes in the production of dehydrated potato products and employs more than 500 people at the height of its production cycle.
Many new employees are hired from publicly traded companies and want to make a difference in the world, he noted. His company requires every imaginable business discipline and must develop its own labor pool. Idahoan Foods is recognized as a top growth leader in consumer packaged goods (CPG), Facer said.
“It comes down to culture and company packages and opportunities,” he said, emphasizing that CEOs must be their companies' chief recruiting officers. Geography is not necessarily the main reason new employees commit to a company, he said.