Seeking a Fresh Start

By Beacon Staff

Last week, more than 930 job seekers flooded the campus of Flathead Valley Community College. The large number of prospective employees was nothing new; the county’s unemployment rate is among the highest in Montana and has languished around 10 percent since the Great Recession hit. But this year’s job fair demonstrated a renewed optimism.

A total of 63 employers — nine more than FVCC originally made room for — arrived with open positions, totaling more than 320 listings, according to Flathead Job Service, the event organizer. The jobs swept across all sectors and industries, from banks to manufacturers to hospitality services.

People streamed into the event for four hours on April 18. Among those searching for a fresh start were single mothers, young families, and men and women hoping to find employment in the Flathead. Here are a few of their stories.


Kim McCollum is greeted by Cindi Jarvis at the JE Engineering, Inc., table during the Flathead Valley Job Fair at Flathead Valley Community College. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Kim McCollum

Like countless people looking for work in recent years, 32-year-old Kim McCollum has had to quickly diversify. That included moving locations and going back to school for continuing education.

The nationwide unemployment rate was 7.6 percent in March. There were 11.7 million Americans unemployed while the civilian labor force declined by 496,000 jobs over the month.

In Montana, Flathead County’s non-seasonally adjusted rate fell to 9.4 percent in March from 9.8 percent in February. Among a labor force of 42,822 there were roughly 4,019 unemployed residents in the county last month, the most of any single county in the state, according to Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry. Flathead’s unemployment rate is the seventh highest in the state.

Montana’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained at 5.6 percent in March. Even though the state lost 700 payroll jobs, following federal efforts to address the national debt, Labor Commissioner Pam Bucy said she believes the state economy has enough momentum to continue improving.

When the recession hit, McCollum was living in Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. But once the job opportunities dried up in the city, McCollum moved to Montana where she had family and interest in a fresh start. She lived in Missoula for awhile but decided to move to Kalispell a few months ago.

She’s been unemployed while settling into her new home, but she just began taking online classes and searching the open job postings.

McCollum would like to stay somewhat close to her field and work in office administration. But she understands that she may need to expand her horizon. She’s already made sacrifices.

But, “who hasn’t,” she said at the job fair at FVCC. “Everybody has. Everybody seems like they’re diversifying.”

Roughly 44 percent of adults in the U.S. are taking some form of continuing education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That includes traditional university degree programs, online courses or professional certifications. Between 2010-2011, enrollment in college online courses spiked 21 percent, to roughly 5.6 million students, according to research by Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization that promotes online education.

McCollum is optimistic and motivated.

“It’s a little overwhelming but I’ve gotten some good information,” she said. “Now the ball’s in my court.”


Samuel Price, left, takes information from The Zone Family Fun Center table while visiting the Flathead Valley Job Fair with Shyla Storkson, right, and their son Jayden. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Samuel Price

Samuel Price and Shyla Storkson dream of getting married and raising their son, Jayden, in the Flathead Valley. But first they need to find a steady source of income. Otherwise the young couple is afraid they may have to move east to the Bakken boomtowns.

“We’d like to stay here but we’ve thought about moving over there,” Shyla, 19, said alongside Samuel at the recent job fair. “That seems like where most of the jobs are.”

Their plight is familiar in Northwest Montana. The recession split many families, like Shyla’s, that were forced to send unemployed fathers and sons to eastern Montana and North Dakota, where the oil boom has created well-paying jobs available to just about anyone who shows up. There are benefits: Unemployed Flathead residents have found work there and local companies have expanded east to tap into the growing market.

But there are repercussions, too. After Shyla’s father lost his job at a local sawmill during the recession he tried to stay and help his daughter with her newborn baby. But eventually the bills piled up and he moved east for employment. He’s considering staying permanently, Shyla says.

Shyla recently started working two jobs, one at a hospital and another at a retail clothing store, so that she, Samuel and Jayden could keep their home here.

Samuel, 20, has been unemployed for almost six months but continues to seek a job. He’s interested in plumbing or electrical work, but until recently opportunities were scarce.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate for teenagers (16 to 19 years old) was 24.2 percent in March, almost exactly the same as a year ago.

In 2011, 11.5 percent of families included an unemployed person, falling from a peak of 12.4 percent in 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported recently.

Samuel and Shyla said they’ve had to make considerable sacrifices in the last two years, especially after Jayden was born.

“It has been difficult, but you’ve got to do it,” Shyla said.

As a father, Samuel says he wants to help raise his child and balance out Shyla’s busy work schedule. Though it was a little overwhelming for Samuel, the job fair provided further hope that the local economy can keep him and his family here.

“I’m optimistic. It’s a good turnaround,” Samuel said. “More jobs are opening up.”


McKenzie Arthur fills out an application outside a busy Arts and Technology Building room during the Flathead Valley Job Fair. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

McKenzie Arthur

As a single mother with four children, 31-year-old McKenzie Arthur combed through the crowded job fair last week for more than an hour. She filled out several applications before returning home to her kids. Besides the daily duties of parenting, she also had online courses to take.

Living in Kalispell, Arthur and her four kids, ranging between the ages of 4 and 12, directly felt the impact of the recession. While trying to raise a family on her own, Arthur also suffered from health issues that led to surgeries and mounting medical bills. Between missing work for that and the everyday needs of her children, Arthur’s employer let her go, she says. She’s been unemployed since September and has relied on federal assistance programs. But now that she’s healthy, she’s trying to pick herself up and reestablish her family on stable ground.

“When you’re a single parent, you do what you’ve got to do,” she said.

“I want to be back in the workplace. I want to make sure I can take care of my family and know I can provide for my family and not have to worry about it.”

Most families across the U.S. have seen their household income drop considerably since the recession hit. The median household income in February — $51,404 — was 5.6 percent lower than in June 2006 and 7.3 percent lower than the end of 2007, according to Sentier Research, a nationwide analysis firm.

The latest research for Montana shows the median household income was $47,219 in 2007 and dropped to $44,222 in 2011.

Arthur arrived at the job fair open to anything and everything.

“I feel like everybody who is here (at the job fair) is really wanting to find something and looking for people to give them the opportunity,” she said.

For Arthur, that means flexibility for times when she needs to run a child to the doctor. It also means a wage and health benefits that can sustain her family.

Finding that kind of job isn’t easy, she says. She’s piling up credits from an online university and becoming a regular at Flathead Job Service, “I’m trying to juggle everything and find the right fit,” she said.


Ed Schmidt, left, takes information from Scott Countryman with MontanaSky during the Flathead Valley Job Fair in Kalispell. Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon

Ed Schmidt

In the aftermath of divorce, 39-year-old Ed Schmidt left his job and home in Butte and traveled west to the Flathead Valley.

“I needed a new start on life,” he says.

Kalispell seemed like the right place for Schmidt, despite high unemployment and warnings from those who said there were no jobs here.

There was a large Christian community, which he was looking to surround himself with. And contrary to his fear, there were work opportunities and resources to help him get on his feet once he arrived.

“This was the best move for me. People were always telling me there’s no jobs up here, but I’m like, ‘you must not leave the house,’” Schmidt says. “I go to the job service here and there’s like six boards of work lined up.

“Coming from where I was at to here, I see more positive influences as far as job opportunities and the economy,” he adds. “I don’t even mind paying a little more for rent than I normally would have.”

He discovered the challenges of having only a high school diploma, but his extensive work experience over the past 20 years helped him find a job rather quickly. Yet it wasn’t satisfying, and he didn’t want to settle.

“I want to do something that is going to actually help people and at the same time pay the bills and give me some meaning,” he says.

He’s been unemployed since January, but actively searching.

Last week Schmidt walked almost five miles to Flathead Valley Community College for the job fair. He was one of the first people in the door, holding a binder full of resumes. He inquired at nearly every table, tirelessly sharing his goals and aspirations.

“I plan on living here the rest of my life,” he says, “so it would help if I found some work.”

  • 937 Number of job seekers who registered at the job fair last week.
  • 63 Number of employers seeking to fill open positions at last week’s valleywide job fair, nine more than organizers originally planned for. The event, organized by Flathead Job Service and Flathead Valley Community College, filled up with more than 50 prospective employers in a matter of weeks after registration opened.
  • 9.4 Percent unemployment, non-seasonally adjusted, in Flathead County in March, the seventh highest rate in Montana. Big Horn County is first with 16 percent, followed by Lincoln (15.9 percent), Sanders (14.2 percent), Mineral (11.7 percent), Glacier (11.3 percent) and Granite (10.3 percent).
  • 1.3 Percent decrease in Flathead County’s unemployment rate last month compared to a year ago.

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