Applications opened this week for Idaho Launch, the new state grant program for Idaho high school graduates to pursue training for certain in-demand careers. Workforce Development Council executive director Wendi Secrist joins Logan Finney to talk about the opportunity available to students, what constitutes an “in-demand” career, and just how much work it took since the end of the legislative session to get this program up and running.
Read: Ready, Set, Idaho Launch
Logan Finney, Idaho Reports:
Hello, and welcome to the Idaho Reports podcast. I’m IR. One of the big headline bills during the last legislative session was setting up the Idaho Launch program, and this week, the applications for that grant have opened. Joining me to discuss Idaho Launch – and all of the work that went into getting it up and running – is Wendi Secrist, executive director of the Workforce Development Council. Thanks for joining us, Wendi.
Wendi Secrist, Workforce Development Council: Thanks for having me, Logan. I appreciate the opportunity.
IR: So as our listeners may recall, Idaho Launch is a grant program that is for Idaho high school students. Can you remind us the details of all that went into that?
Secrist: Sure. Idaho Launch is going to provide an opportunity for graduating high school seniors to access up to $8,000 or 80% of tuition and fees for a post-secondary education of their choice. The types of programs that we have available are aligned to in-demand careers. So it’s everything from commercial truck driving licenses, cosmetology schools, to community college programs, to engineering and health care and other in-demand programs at four-year institutions. So, a lot of variety as to what’s available.
One of the things that the Council had to do was identify the list of in-demand careers, and we used a very data driven process. We looked at all of the occupations in Idaho, and what we settled on was an occupation that has 50 or more annual openings would be considered in-demand. And so that is about 240, just over 240 occupations that are eligible. Then, we match those up against the programs that are instituted, and private training providers are providing throughout the state, and that’s what’s available to students.
IR: Yeah, I printed out the list the other day and it’s quite the extensive list of what are considered in-demand careers. Can you tell me who exactly makes up the Workforce Development Council, and how did this program come under your purview there?
Secrist: So, the Workforce Development Council is a small agency that sits under the executive office of the governor. The Council itself is a 37-member body appointed by the governor. They act as is kind of the board, and then our council staff, we’re about 15 people right now. The Launch expansion has required us to hire, which gives us good insight as to exactly what’s going on with employers throughout the state and how challenging it is, you know, to find employees.
The council has responsibilities under a number of different things. We have some federal programs that we manage funds for. We have the workforce development training fund, so when an employer pays their unemployment insurance taxes, 3% of that goes into the Workforce Development Training Fund. And then we’re able to invest in programs throughout the state to help make sure that we have a good, strong talent pipeline available for employers. And then Launch is a new program that that came to the council. And actually, Idaho Launch has been around since November of 2020. We started the program, recognized that there was a gap in short term training programs that don’t qualify for any financial aid, federal Pell Grants, any types of student loans or other types of financial aid. And a lot of those jobs pay very, very well. Looking at the resources that we had in the Workforce Development Training Fund, we said, well, what if we started a program that would help Idahoans access this short-term training and make them, whether they’re employed or unemployed, be able to take that next step and earn a better living? And so over the last two and a half years – almost three years since we started the program – we’ve been measuring the effectiveness of it and looking at the outcomes and, you know, watching people who enter training and look at what their wage growth has been, and the program has been incredibly successful. We’ve seen wage growth in the neighborhood of $15,000 per year, one year post training. That’s life changing for an individual.
So, we came into this, you asked how the Workforce Development Council got involved in Launch. And you know, the council is really responsible for working across education and all the state agencies that are engaged in workforce development, and the private sector and in the employer community. It was a natural fit for us to take and scale this program and make it available for graduating high school students. To that point with graduating high school students, you know, our go-on rates have been very low across the state. So right now we’re, I think, 37% or 38% last year. It’s traditionally been, pre-pandemic, in the low- to mid-forties. You know, we have to ask ourselves why? Why are over 50% of our kids not going on? Is it funding? Is it money? That’s one of the things. Is it that the traditional college pathway, they don’t feel prepared or ready for it? Or it’s just they don’t feel that it’s the right thing for them at that point in their life? And so by providing them opportunities to choose any pathway to an in-demand career, we’re hoping to see a significant closing of that gap and that our kids recognize that if they want to go on and become an electrician, a plumber or a truck driver, if they want to be a Ph.D. engineer, or if they want to be a nurse or a doctor or whatever, that we’re going to celebrate that success. We want – we need – more of all of them. And so we’re going to support them and we’re going to celebrate their success, no matter which path they choose.
IR: With this grant program getting its legs under it, under the Idaho Launch brand, is that previously existing training for adults is still available?
Secrist: It is. It is. We still have it and intend to continue to fund the program through the Workforce Development Training Fund. And so, yes, right now we’re trying not to confuse folks because IdahoLaunch.com is where the adult program is, but through NextSteps.Idaho.gov which is the college and career planning website that the State Board of Education and the Workforce Development Council sponsor, that’s where we have all of the information for students. We’re sending our high school kids to Next Steps, and adults can still get assistance through the Launch website.
IR: Very cool. This is kind of intended to be a parallel track to the traditional four-year college and university route, right? So someone who wanted to pursue a Launch grant couldn’t get the Idaho Opportunity Scholarship that the Board of Education offers, for example?
Secrist: They can apply for both. The way that we built the Scholarship Idaho website that is doing the applications, accepting the applications, it allows the student to go through and indicate what they’re planning to pursue, which school they’re intending to go to, and other details. Then it lets them know if they’re eligible for both.
Secrist: So, they’re able to apply for both. And then, we know that kids’ plans are going to change. The Launch application window is open until April 15th. So if they go in and, you know, they thought that they were going to go to the University of Idaho and pursue an engineering degree, but they changed their mind and they’re going to go to ISU and pursue an instrumentation technology associate’s degree, it’s fine! They can change. They can change their pathway. Everyone will be looking and working with the financial aid offices to pull together their support package.
IR: So those applications open up this week, the first week of October, and you just said they’re open through April. What sort of information does an interested student have to provide there?
Secrist: It’s actually pretty easy. We need them to tell us where they’re going to high school, when they intend to graduate, what their plans are. That’s probably the feedback that we’re getting from college and career advisors is, ‘well, these kids don’t always know where they’re going to go,’ and that’s okay. They don’t have know. We need them to tell us where they’re most likely to go. So, again, back to if they want to change from one institution to another, as long as it’s still an eligible program, then we’ll support them through that over the coming months before they graduate from high school. But really, they’re providing just that basic demographic information for us. They tell us what their plans are and what career they plan to pursue, and that’s about it. I mean, Launch does not require them to have a specific GPA. It requires that they graduate from high school, and that they complete a career pathway plan.
We’ve been working with the college and career advisors throughout the state to make sure that they know what’s required of that career pathway plan. But one of the really important things is they don’t have to have that done in order to apply. They have to have that done by graduation. There’s different districts that will – and I think the majority of the state will – choose the Next Steps pathway for the career pathway plans, where there’s a set of three activities in Next Steps that they need to complete. Because they create portfolios, we’re able to match it behind the scenes, and we’ll know that they completed their career pathway plan. One of the other options that we gave districts is if their senior project is already aligned to career exploration and planning, then we can work with the district to approve their senior project. Then, by knowing that they graduated from high school, we know that they completed their career pathway plan. And then we have a third option. There’s some districts who use other tools and resources for career planning, and so we’ll work with them. But we don’t see that there will be that many of those. So, mostly in Next Steps and either through that or a senior project.
IR: Very cool. Yeah, my senior project had to do with career exploration.
Secrist: When they’re already doing that, then let’s support it. Let’s make sure, that’s what we want. We want them to have a vision of where they’re headed. You know, with careers and career plans, a plan is something that is like a moment in time, right? What we want is that they’re planning. We want them to understand what the process is to go through that career planning process, so that if they get into their program and in a semester or a couple of weeks then they’re like, ‘I do not like this,’ that they know how to pivot.
IR: We referenced that this could be used for something like the engineering program at U of I, or some of those technical associate degrees at ISU. There are some private partnerships and apprenticeship programs and stuff this can be used for too, right?
Secrist: Absolutely. We’ve partnered with all of the joint apprenticeship training centers in the state who offer electrical, plumbing, ironworker, other types of apprenticeships, along with the community colleges’ workforce training centers. They offer related instruction for many of the apprenticeships as well. And then, through efforts that the Department of Labor or the Workforce Development Council and career technical education and other partners have been building apprenticeships throughout the state,there’s other related instruction programs. So, we’re able to support kids entering into apprenticeships with helping to offset the cost of that related instruction.
IR: Earlier in the conversation, you mentioned that when this list of in-demand careers was compiled, you guys selected the careers that had more than 50 openings each year. Can you tell me what were the highest on that list? What careers are the most ‘in-demand’ in Idaho right now?
Secrist: So, the most in-demand. You know, there’s a number of careers that are the most in-demand that don’t require a lot of post-secondary training, like retail sales and working in restaurants and other types of things. But when you kind of get into those that do require post-secondary training, you’re really looking at health care fields, nursing, truck driving, construction. Lots of them, there’s just so much variety. I mean, I think that’s one of the beautiful things about this program, is that it really supports people going into a variety of occupations. It’s not just limited to two or three industries, there’s lots. But traditionally, I mean, registered nurses, CNAs, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, electricians, plumbers. I mean, all of those tend to always come up close to the top of those in-demand lists.
IR: Several pages of options, it runs the gamut. Just to kind of timestamp this conversation, the applications are opening right now at the beginning of October. The legislative session feels like a long time ago now, but that was only six or nine months ago that this program was spun up. You referenced you guys have hired some new staff, but can you tell me just how much of a lift this was for the Workforce Development Council to get this up and running?
Secrist: This has been an incredible lift. It’s been a lot of fun. We really enjoyed it. But yeah, it’s been six months since the legislature was signed. We have had to develop how we were going to accept applications, develop all of the training and the resources that were going to be needed to help our school partners and our all of the different community partners that work with high school kids. And so building out the application process, all the policies we’ve had to develop. Policies for, what is an in-demand career? How are we going to handle the extensions? I mean, that’s one of the things that if somebody is going on a religious mission or going into the military or going into a structured volunteer service like Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or has a medical issue, we need to be able to provide an opportunity for them to be able to delay their grant – because one of the most important things about Launch is that they have to apply while they’re in high school, before they graduate. They have to apply. They can’t come back a year later and say, ‘well, I was a graduate of the class of 2024.’ They’re not eligible any longer. They have to have applied well before they graduate from high school, by April 15th, so that we have them in the queue. So students that are going to do something like what I mentioned earlier after high school, they need to apply for an extension with us. So we had to develop policies around that, and just all of the different things that go into starting up a program.
And we’re not done yet. You know, this was a big, big milestone. We’ve been looking at October 3rd as our first milestone. But the next one comes when we actually start funding the awards. We’re in the procurement process to get a grant management platform because once we fund these accounts, the Workforce Development Council believes strongly in transparency and accountability. We want to make sure we have a strong system in place to be able to manage the grants and make sure that we’re doing what we said we would do, and what the statute tells us that we’re supposed to do. So, that’s kind of our next big hurdle, is getting that grant management platform not only acquired but then implemented and then going through the awarding process.
We have April 15th is the absolute deadline, but the statute requires us to make the first round of initial awards by December 31st. So, we’ll be taking applications from right now until November 30th and then we’ll take that pool of applications, and we’ll put out contingent offers in November or in December to the students that have applied during that window. Then we’ll do another window, sometime in February we’ll take that second round, and then April 15th will be the third round. So, we’ll be doing award announcements by December 31st, by March 31st, and by May 31st to let students know what’s available. But they will be contingent awards, because they have to graduate and they have to have completed their career plan. We have to validate all of that stuff after they’ve graduated to be able to finalize their award.
IR: I think that’s a super important detail to emphasize, that the students have to do their applications before graduation. Even though those applications opening are a huge milestone for you guys at the Workforce Development Council, there’s still a lot on your plate!
Secrist: There is. There is, but we’re up for it.
IR: Is there anything else about Idaho Launch or generally about the Workforce Development Council our listeners should be aware of?
Secrist: I think the main thing is if you know a senior in high school, please let them know about the program. Send them to NextSteps.Idaho.gov and they’ll be able to find the Launch information, but also the application very quickly off of the website, and encourage them to apply.
IR: All right. Wendi Secrist, executive director with the Idaho Workforce Development Council, thanks so much for joining us this week.
Secrist: Thanks, Logan.
Logan Finney | Associate Producer
Logan Finney is a North Idaho native with a passion for media production and boring government meetings. He grew up skiing, hunting and hiking in the mountains of Bonner County and has maintained a lifelong interest in the state’s geography, history and politics. Logan joined the Idaho Reports team in 2020 as a legislative session intern and stayed to cover the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hired as an associate producer in 2021 and they haven’t been able to get rid of him since.