Bringing the Economy Home

Bottom Rung: Why An Influx Of Retirees To Idaho Is Creating More Low-Wage Jobs

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact

Jordyn Skinner is a freshman at Boise State University. She also works part-time at Franco's Pizzeria.

There’s a brand new pizza joint in southeast Boise. It’s nestled in a mini-strip mall with a gas station, dry cleaner and hair salon.

On a recent Friday evening, Franco’s Pizzeria was just starting to pick up. It’s a tiny place. The cash register is only a few steps away from the industrial pizza ovens. There are a handful of tables and stools inside for someone who just wants a quick slice.

Two employees behind the register take turns answering the phone and taking orders. Two other workers are busy hand-tossing pizza dough, spreading sauce on the crust and layering the New York-style pies with toppings.

Save for the owners, everyone at Franco’s earns $7.50 an hour, that’s a quarter above minimum wage

“That’s pretty much what I expected,” says pizza maker Jordyn Skinner. “That’s what I got paid back home when I worked retail. I expected I’d make minimum wage over here.”

The Service Sector

As defined by the U.S. Census Bureau’s North American Industry Classification System, here’s a list of job categories that would fall under the “service sector” heading.

  • Transportation and Warehousing
  • Information
  • Finance and Insurance
  • Real Estate
  • Professional, Scientific and Technical Services
  • Company Management
  • Administrative Support
  • Waste Management
  • Educational Services
  • Health Care and Social Assistance
  • Arts, Entertainment, Recreation
  • Accommodation and Food Service

Skinner is an 18-year-old college student from Portland. For her, this near-minimum wage job is for spending money, she isn’t yet supporting herself. But that’s why Skinner is going to college to become a physical therapist, she would like to be able to support herself in the future.

“But for right now, while I’m in college, it’s alright,” she adds.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 31,000 Idahoans earned minimum wage or less last year. That’s up 63 percent from 2011. The increase in minimum wage jobs here has given Idaho the unwanted distinction of having the largest share of minimum wage workers in the country.

Skinner is part of Idaho’s growing service sector. The Idaho Labor Department says three in four jobs created here last year were service jobs that tend to pay low wages or the minimum wage.

What’s driving this trend?

Idaho has seen a decrease in high-paying tech manufacturing jobs, and fewer jobs in mining and logging. But the biggest factor, according to the Idaho Labor Department, is the recent growth in retirees here. And the need for local pizza joints like Franco’s is only expected to increase as more and more retirees move to the Gem State.

Mike and Louise Berlin live on the same side of town as Franco’s Pizzeria. They’re mostly retired and they’re relatively new to Idaho. And they stop at places like Franco’s for a quick dinner a couple times a week.

It was about six years ago the Berlins were contemplating a move to Boise from their home in California.

“Mike kept reading magazine articles about how Idaho, or Boise, was you know, the best – top 10 for retiring, or top 10 for raising your kids or whatever,” says Louise Berlin who is 60. 

That article from Money magazine had them intrigued. They visited Boise in February 2007 to get a taste of winter here.

“Obviously the weather in California is pretty nice most of the time. We came in February and it was fabulous. It was cold but it was beautiful,” says Louise. “The sun was shining; we thought ‘Aah, this is a sign.’”

The Berlins sold their two California homes in 2007, at the peak of the housing market, and finalized their plans to move to Boise.

Mike, now 58, says he didn’t intend to retire. That option sort of fell in his lap when his employer, Health Net Inc., started to downsize.

“I took the opportunity to offer myself as part of that downsizing,” he recalls “It was March 24, 2008. I moved here permanently and didn’t have a job, and didn’t really need to look for a job, because we had done pretty well through the sale of our primary residence and the sale of a cabin in Lake Tahoe.”

The Berlins eat out a few times each week, they like to go to the movies on Friday afternoons, and they spend a lot of their money at places like Home Depot. They also do a lot to support Boise’s arts scene, with season tickets to local performance groups, and regular outings to local bars to listen to music groups.

A Wave Of Retirees

Driver’s license, tax return, and Census data all show thousands of people move to Idaho from California, Washington and Oregon each year.

Driver’s license data suggest more than 6,000 Californians moved to Idaho just last year.

But the Idaho Department of Labor has picked up on an unsettling trend: The people moving here are retired or near-retirement age – the people moving out are the young, educated workforce in search of higher-paying jobs.

Bob Uhlenkott is the Idaho Labor Department’s chief researcher. “The fact that we’re getting older so fast is something that will really have a huge impact, a profound impact on our economy and the kind of jobs we’ll have in the future,” Uhlenkott says.

Demographically, Idaho is a bit unusual. It is still one of the youngest states in the country; the median age here is 34. Yet Idaho is aging rapidly, too, Uhlenkott says.

The Labor Department says the percentage of Idahoans 55 or older grew by just one-tenth of a percent from 1990 to 2000. Since 2000, the 55-and-older population has grown by more than 5 percent.

“When the retired folks move to Idaho, they consume services,” says Uhlenkott. “They order pizzas, they get dry cleaning, and they have their landscaping done. Those services are going to thrive as long as the in-migration continues with that older age cohort.”

Emilie Ritter Saunders / StateImpact

Mike and Louise Berlin moved to Boise from California during 2007 and 2008. They're mostly retired, earning money through investments, a part-time professorship, rental properties, and freelance writing.

The service sector isn’t all low-wage jobs. The bright spot here, says Uhlenkott, is the health care industry. As more people like the Berlins continue migrating to Idaho, there is a big opportunity to drive the medical industry. Nursing jobs and medical support jobs tend to pay better.

After six years here, the Berlins don’t have many complaints, but they would like to see more of their friends and family move to Idaho. The sticking point is usually finding a job here.

“We were just incredibly fortunate that the opportunity to sell came along when it did for us,” Mike Berlin says. “So, I didn’t have to have a job in order to move here, which is the situation with even some of our friends we’d love to entice to move here – but they’d have to find a job.”


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