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remain in flux
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
In addition to higher wages, area employers are also
offering increased benefits and getting creative with other
“Employers are a little more innovative,”
Ametsbichler said. “You want to be an employer of choice these
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
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
“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.
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
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.”
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,
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.
said that for every job lost in the wood products economy, another
one or two jobs in other industries also disappear.
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.
up,” he said. “We're not the little town that we used to be
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.
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
Reporter Tyler Christensen can be reached at
523-5215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.