On the eve of summer and the busiest time of year in terms of local economic activity, Flathead County has the most workers and best unemployment rate in a decade.
Last month there were an estimated 43,055 people in the local workforce, 143 more than a year ago and 4,650 more than five years ago, according to statistics from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.
The April total is just shy of the high-water mark of 43,522 in 2007, when the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent. Based on recent years’ hiring trends, an additional 2,000 seasonal jobs could be added in the coming months as summer’s economic surge commences.
“It’s certainly looking like it’s going to be an awesome year for jobs in the Flathead,” said Laura Gardner, manager of Flathead Job Service in downtown Kalispell.
The local job service has more than 700 open positions, both part-time and full-time, currently posted, Gardner said.
Gardner said there are jobs available in a variety of industries, including health care and construction. A persistent challenge lingering locally, a large number of employers are struggling to find qualified workers that are either properly educated or trained in the available positions.
Gardner said the job service is encouraging businesses to establish apprenticeship programs, or additional on-the-job training opportunities, that could help fill their needs.
“But there are many businesses that need workers that can hit the ground running,” she said. “It’s not always an easy solution.”
Flathead County is entering the heart of so-called construction season with several large projects in the works, including a new elementary school on the south end of Kalispell, continued expansion at Kalispell Regional Healthcare and broad residential and commercial growth in several large subdivisions such as Kalispell North Town Center and a proposed 40-acre development near Raceway Park.
“There is a lot of commercial and residential (development) going on in the Flathead, which is a good thing for the economy,” Gardner said.
Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, said the construction industry seems to be facing increasing challenges finding workers, citing a survey by the National Association of Realtors that showed many young people are not interested in working in construction despite high wages.
“It’s getting to be a pretty big concern now that housing starts are certainly going up,” he said. “There’s just not enough people filling these construction jobs. Something’s got to give.”
Flathead County’s unemployment rate last month was 5.4 percent, which is the lowest April mark since 2007, when it was 3.6 percent. Only five years ago, the April jobless rate was nearly 10 percent.
There were 2,450 unemployed residents in Flathead County last month, again the lowest since 2007, when there were 1,634.
The Flathead remains a bright spot in Montana’s economy, which remains healthy overall, based on economic data.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced Montana’s unemployment rate held steady in April, remaining at 3.8 percent.
The U.S. unemployment rate decreased by 0.1 percentage points to 4.4 percent.
“Montana’s economy is the envy of the nation,” Bullock stated. “Main Street Montana businesses are growing and hiring more workers, and we are coming up with new and innovative ways to make sure employers have the workforce they need.”
Total employment levels, which include self-employed and agricultural workers, indicated a decline of 830 jobs over the month, according to the state labor department. The number of unemployed people increased slightly.
Payroll employment declined by 1,100 jobs in April, led by losses in the construction industry. Payroll employment remains over 8,000 higher than April 2016, maintaining above average employment growth over the past year.
According to state labor officials, the April employment declines seem likely related to delays in seasonal construction hiring, rather than a change in Montana’s economic growth trends.
“Montana’s unemployment rate continues to be at low levels, which can make it difficult for employers to find the skilled workers they need to grow and expand their operations,” said Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Pam Bucy. “However, tight labor markets also have benefits for workers because of rising wages and ample job opportunities.”