Click the image above or use the arrows to hear from people attending the 2009 Employment Exploration Expo at Kalispell Center Mall.
The face of unemployment in the Flathead is one of both diversity and uncertainty. But, as spring brings warm weather and a renewed sense of possibility, it is also one of hope.
This much was evident at the crowded Employment Exploration Expo, a job fair held on March 26 at the Kalispell Center Mall. At a time when unemployment rates are soaring above 12 percent in Flathead County and higher than 15 percent in surrounding counties, it’s not surprising that event coordinators were expecting a record attendance of more than 4,000 people.
Meg Lindberg, one of the coordinators, said the current dynamics of Northwest Montana’s labor force are complex. Job retraining and college education are now higher priorities for many, as the service and manual labor industries – from construction to waitressing – become flooded and increasingly uninviting. Lindberg said for every service job available, there are more than 500 applicants waiting in the wings.
“The more specialized, the better chance you have of landing a job,” Lindberg said.
Along with the 52 employers on hand at the expo, there were also 13 training and educational services, ranging from government agencies to Flathead Valley Community College. The college has seen a spike in enrollment, largely attributed to the economic woes.
“It’s an interesting market right now,” Lindberg said. “We have kids essentially competing for jobs with their parents.”
At the job fair, men in their 50s stood side by side with 18-year-olds, each dressed in dapper attire and clutching briefcases filled with resumes and applications. Young mothers waited in line to question employers, while grandmothers found themselves in the same lines considering the prospects of work yet again.
Michille White and her daughter-in-law Laura White joked about how their hands hurt from filling out applications. A slumping economy and a house full of kids have forced the stay-at-home mothers to seek work. Bills are stacking up.
They said a hotel night desk job or evening grocery store shift would allow them to spend the days with their kids and then let the fathers take over at night while they go to work. But with “everything getting tight,” Michille said she won’t be too picky.
“The desperation is sad because it’s just a sign of the times,” she said. “It’s crowded here. Everybody’s just trying to do what they can to pay the bills and provide an adequate living.”
Steve Gesler has a bachelor’s degree in special education and a couple of decades of relevant experience. What he doesn’t have is his job. After spending years as assistant principal at Summit Preparatory School, Gesler’s position was eliminated because of belt-tightening needs. His reassignment to nighttime dorm monitor, which requires working the graveyard shift, doesn’t provide the hours or salary he wants.
Gesler is looking for something in the realm of human services, or at least a job that would not only give him daytime hours but also a boost back to his old wages. He’s paying for a daughter to go to college, though he knows it could be worse.
“I’m grateful to be working and have a job at all,” Gesler said.
The market has altered people’s criteria and standards. Darrell Tackett of Columbia Falls, 20 years old and unemployed, said when he began job searching he told himself he wouldn’t take a job that pays less than $15 an hour. Now he says $10 is the cutoff. He was making far more than that before he got laid off from his oil-drilling job. In fact, he comes from an oil-drilling family and many of them are laid off as well.
With so many people searching for work, Tackett knows he faces stiff and often more experienced competition for any job opening.
“The odds are against you, so to speak,” Tackett said.
Yet the hope is there. Lindberg called the expo a “shot of optimism” and many at the fair warmly talked about the blessings of life that always seem to emerge victorious over the pitfalls and lulls.
Valencia Bautista, an ambitious and multi-talented immigrant from Canada, embodies that spirit, even if she acknowledges that her timing is unfortunate. She moved to Whitefish last year, got her work visa in order by September and then watched as the region’s economic base faltered.
“It’s been an adventure, for sure,” she said. “Everything is so part-time; I’m looking for something full-time.”
Bautista is currently juggling three jobs and going to Flathead Valley Community College to get her second college degree “to be more competitive.” She already speaks four languages and has a variety of job skills. The house payments keep coming, but her husband has steady work and she’s patiently figuring out the best ways to use her diverse abilities. She’s happy.
“Every day I’m thankful that I have a home and I have food on a daily basis,” Bautista said. “I’m always learning and I’m staying busy.”
Bautista offers her outlook as a nugget of wisdom for people, like herself, who are struggling to get through these tough times.
“Keep looking and be happy that you have your health and your family,” Bautista said. “If you can have that, everything else falls into place.”
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