Help Wanted Ads Go Unanswered in West
Saturday, August 25, 2007; 8:26 AM
HELENA, Mont. -- The owner of a fast food joint in Montana's booming oil patch found himself outsourcing the drive-thru window to a Texas telemarketing firm, not because it's cheaper but because he can't find workers.
Record low unemployment across parts of the West has created tough working conditions for business owners, who in places are being forced to boost wages or be creative to fill their jobs.
John Francis, who owns the McDonald's in Sidney, Mont., said he tried advertising in the local newspaper and even offered up to $10 an hour to compete with higher-paying oil field jobs. Yet the only calls were from other business owners upset they would have to raise wages, too. Of course, Francis' current employees also wanted a pay hike.
"I don't know what the answer is," Francis said. "There's just nobody around that wants to work."
Unemployment rates have been as low as 2 percent this year in places like Montana, and nearly as low in neighboring states. Economists cite such factors as an aging work force and booming tourism economies for the tight labor market.
For places like Montana, it has been a steady climb in the nearly two decades since the timber and mining industry recession. The state approached double-digit unemployment levels in the 1980s and began the slow crawl back in the early 1990s.
"This is actually the biggest economic story of our time, and we don't quite grasp it because it is 15 years in the making," said economist Larry Swanson, director of the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports the mountain West region _ covering eight states along the Rocky Mountains _ has the lowest overall unemployment rate in the nation. The region hit an all-time low of 3.4 percent in May.
The effects are everywhere. Logging equipment in Idaho sits idle as companies have a tough time finding workers. A shortage of lifeguards has forced Helena to shorten hours at children-only pools. A local paper in Jackson, Wyo., has page after page of help wanted ads.
In Jackson Hole, the Four Seasons Resort still had openings in late July. The problem has created longer hours and tougher working conditions for current employees.
For years, the resort has imported dozens of workers from Eastern Europe who often come as much for the summer recreation opportunity as the money. This year, however, that wasn't enough and so for the first time the resort also sent recruiters to a high school job fair, said spokeswoman Greer Terry. It only helped a little.
"It's been a struggle finding employees this summer," Terry said.