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Monday, May 21 2007
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Missoula workers remain in flux
By TYLER CHRISTENSEN of the Missoulian

Ben Schmidt runs one of those seasonal businesses in Missoula that expands with the summer tourist season and contracts to one person - himself - in the winter.

But this year, with the local unemployment rate hovering at rock-bottom lows, that annual expansion was unusually difficult. And Schmidt's business isn't alone.

Montana boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate, at 2.2 percent, and Missoula County's unemployment rate of 2.1 percent is even lower. With fewer than 1,500 people in the county currently seeking jobs, many local employers looking to fill entry-level posts are taking in only a handful of applications, and some of those needing skilled workers are out of luck entirely.

Meanwhile, many workers are job-hopping with abandon, leveraging the skills they learn along the way into better and better-paying jobs.

The local job market is currently experiencing a lot of churn, said Missoula Job Service director Wolfgang Ametsbichler. That is, a noticeable number of Missoula County's 59,000 workers are changing jobs or retraining for new jobs, even as the unemployment rate remains low.

Gone are the days when people were expected to stick with a job for 20 or 30 years, he noted. These days, jobs change rapidly and workers must train continually in order to keep up.

The thing is, employers are the ones who have to provide the training.

Employers didn't have to worry about job training 20 years ago, Ametsbichler said, because if they needed skilled workers they could pretty much take their pick. The new market for employees is much more competitive, and forward-thinking employers are taking an active role in work force training and development to ensure the workers they need will be trained and ready when they need them.

The Missoula Job Service itself has shifted away from helping workers find jobs and more toward helping businesses find the resources - including skilled labor - they need to succeed. The agency is providing more and more education and training, Ametsbichler said, and that new focus benefits both workers and employers.

The local work force center is also expanding its focus beyond Missoula County as part of a statewide effort to encourage regional collaboration.

Missoula County is in a region with Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Mineral, Sanders and Ravalli counties because they comprise an area that's seeing the same explosive growth and share many of the same assets, Ametsbichler said. The idea behind regionalization is to look at the area as a whole and identify resources that can be shared to the benefit of all.

Many Missoula businesses are already adopting this tactic as they try to pull in workers from the larger region, he said. Some employers are making use of the Internet to get broader exposure. A lot of employers, he said, are hoping to reach former Montanans who want to come home.

But most Missoula businesses are starting by hiking their wages.

“They are paying more,” Ametsbichler said. “Wages are going up, no question about it.”

In addition to higher wages, area employers are also offering increased benefits and getting creative with other incentives.

“Employers are a little more innovative,” Ametsbichler said. “You want to be an employer of choice these days.”

DirecTV, for one, is marketing not just its jobs, but also its health care package, exercise room, flexible hours and other perks. The company's call center in Missoula set a new standard for base pay and soaked up more than 1,000 workers from the local labor pool after it began offering entry-level positions at $9 an hour.

Low unemployment rates and creeping income figures demonstrate that Montana currently has a robust economy, said Paul Polzin, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

However, while businesses are enjoying a wave of prosperity, his bureau's annual survey shows work force development at the top of their list of concerns.

“Employers are having a very difficult time finding people to work,” Polzin said.

Robust economic growth gives many businesses the opportunity to expand, but as they grow, businesses have to hire more workers. Western Montana's population growth simply isn't keeping up with demand.

While there has been a steady increase in population, that growth has been concentrated at the older end of the age spectrum, said economist Brad Eldredge, who works for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry's Research and Analysis Bureau.

By 2020, one in five Montana residents will be 65 or older, and the state will have the third-highest percentage of senior citizens in the nation. Those shifting demographics are already leaving many businesses scrambling to find replacements for retiring workers.

Some Montana businesses have already started outsourcing jobs or hiring workers from other countries, said fellow economist Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, a regional studies and public policy center at the University of Montana.

We can expect to see more of this in the coming years, he added.

“It's one of the most significant developments of the last two to three years, but it's been in the making for the last decade and a half,” Swanson said. “The reality is that the tight labor market is going to be with us unless we go into a fairly significant economic recession.”

A recession isn't likely given western Montana's ever-expanding economic base, he added. Since the early '90s, the state has been replacing its swing-prone natural resource industry base with a variety of more stable industries, such as health care. This shift has resulted in an overall economy that's less dependent on any one industry, Swanson explained.

Given the broader employment base in Missoula, the surge of new college graduates entering the job market this month and the 133 workers soon to be laid off from Stimson Lumber Co.'s plywood plant in Bonner are not expected to have much impact on the long-term unemployment rate.

However, Polzin said that for every job lost in the wood products economy, another one or two jobs in other industries also disappear.

“I would imagine there may be a short upward blip in unemployment as a result of the Stimson layoffs,” he said. But “this is a statewide issue, not just Missoula's. ... While the loss of those jobs is going to have a measurable impact on the local economy, it won't change the long-term forces that are causing this.”

Just 20 years ago, Ametsbichler said, the layoff at Stimson would have been a catastrophe. Now, while they are certainly hard for the individuals involved, the larger community will survive.

“We've grown up,” he said. “We're not the little town that we used to be anymore.”

Eldredge said businesses needing to raise their wages often find the money by raising prices, so Montana can expect to see higher prices for a lot of goods and services in the coming months. Over the long term, he said, the state can expect to see unemployment creep back up to more than 4 percent.

That's because, when they run out of other options, businesses that have everything they need to grow except the workers just won't grow. And that, he said, will only hinder continued economic growth for Montana.

Reporter Tyler Christensen can be reached at 523-5215 or tyler.christensen@lee.net.


Copyright © 2007 Missoulian, a division of Lee Enterprises.