When Whitefish native Joel Rosenberg graduated from the University of Montana with a finance degree in 2003, he couldn’t get so much as an interview for a job at a bank in the Flathead Valley.
Even his dad, president of Valley Bank, didn’t think he was qualified.
Four years later, though, the local job market is changing dramatically as retiring baby boomers leave openings for a new generation of business leaders. The Flathead, along with the rest of Montana, now enjoys a rock-bottom unemployment rate and is on the cusp of becoming a magnet for young professionals, Rosenberg and others say – but it still must find ways to create more of the high-wage professional jobs that will enable ambitious graduates to afford the local real estate.
That’s not an easy task. But Kate Downen of Montana West Economic Development says
she knows where to start: “It’s all about building a culture of education.”
The Business Education Initiative is one of Kalispell’s various business programs designed to build that culture. The initiative is a collaborative effort of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, School District 5 and Flathead Valley Community College to get business leaders, educators and students together to prepare young people for 21st century careers, emphasizing entrepreneurship. It includes advisory teams comprised of 60 business leaders that oversee and help implement career-oriented curriculum in the area’s schools and at Flathead Valley Community College. Also, it’s bringing the Montana Business Education Summit to Kalispell on June 27-29.
The initiative’s ultimate goal, Chamber of Commerce President Joe Unterreiner said, is to teach skills that are practical to modern business realities. He called this educational model “cutting edge” for Montana.
“There’s definitely an emphasis on promoting and educating for entrepreneurship,” he said. “It’s a huge part of what all of us are doing here.”
Flathead County’s population is the second-fastest growing in the state and its unemployment rate hovers around the state average, which is currently the lowest in the nation. Flathead’s per capita personal income, however, is also consistent with the state’s – 41st in the nation last year at $30,688, insufficient for an area where the median house price is $235,000 and rising.
To business leaders, these numbers mean that Montana now has plenty of jobs—traditionally it’s had a labor surplus and job shortage—but not enough high-wage career opportunities.
A large portion of the job surplus is in the low- to mid-range wage sector, Downen said, like construction and retail service. Health care and finance, professions more likely to attract educated young people, are also strong, while information jobs are dominant in Whitefish. Downen and Unterreiner both said the strength of such progressive sectors is necessary to attract young college graduates looking to start a career.
Rosenberg, after a stint with U.S. Bank in Vancouver, Washington, was finally able to land a job as an assistant vice president at Valley Bank. At 27, he is also treasurer of Flathead Area Young Professionals, an organization of young business leaders that meets monthly to discuss economic issues. He’s committed to helping his peers get past what he sees as a reluctance on the part of many Montana companies to give youth a chance.
Youth is an asset in many other states, Rosenberg said. At U.S. Bank, he said, only five of his fifteen fellow employees were older. But he was able to return to Montana at a young age only because of his family’s bank.
Rosenberg thinks that part of modern business education is teaching the older employers the importance of embracing ever-changing technology and giving a chance to talented young people.
“People get their roots planted in jobs here,” he said. “They get a good job and sit on it as long as possible because there are not enough other good jobs. Then not much changes.”
Rosenberg came back for the same reasons that hoards of others are coming to Flathead Valley: it’s beautiful and a great place to live. Business leaders agree that if people can afford to live and work here, they will.
“I’m hearing about the doctors that are coming here because of the scenery,” Unterreiner said, also mentioning professionals like young civil engineers and certified public accountants.
Kalispell is already a major magnet for young people from surrounding rural areas, said Lindsey Barnett, a 20-year-old FVCC student from Libby. She said that young people come from places like Libby because Kalispell has far more job opportunities. Many, like her, plan on spending their lives here. Jane Karas, FVCC president, said that 98 percent of FVCC students stay in the Flathead area after college.
Unterreiner brings up Kalispell’s ongoing school building projects as proof of the community’s focus on education. There are $70 million worth of ongoing building projects: Flathead High’s addition, three new buildings at FVCC, Kalispell Junior High’s remodel and the new Glacier High School.
“There’s never been a better time than right now to be a young professional here,” Unterreiner said.
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