Leveling Economy

While the lower price of oil has hurt economies that were largely insulated from the recent recession, the opposite may be true here

By Kellyn Brown

Montana’s jobless rate fell to 4.1 percent in March and, for many, that number is hard to fathom. It’s the lowest rate since 2007 and more promising because rates are low in counties across much of the state, not just eastern Montana, where municipalities have benefited from jobs on the nearby Bakken.

Metropolitan areas of the state, most in western Montana, have also seen their rates plummet. Gallatin County, home to Bozeman, has a 3.3 percent jobless rate, an extraordinarily low level. Yellowstone County, home to Billings, has a rate of 3.6 percent. Lewis and Clark County, home to Helena, has a rate of 3.8 percent. In fact, of the state’s six most populated counties, only Flathead has a rate above 4.5 percent.

While our local rate is considerably higher, at 6.8 percent, it has also continued to fall and is far removed from the years following the recession when the jobless rate would consistently surpass 10 percent. These numbers, of course, don’t factor in those who are underemployed or who have given up looking for work altogether. But there are two sides to that coin.

In a story we published last month, the Flathead Job Service reported over 500 job orders compared to just a few dozen during months in 2011. And with an economy that relies heavily on tourism, service industry positions are widely available and can be difficult to fill. It’s common to hear local employers complain about the lack of quality applicants. Meanwhile, job seekers bemoan the wages in the state, which, on average, are some of the lowest in the country.

Over the previous several years, many locals headed east toward greener pastures and bigger paychecks. They worked on rigs in North Dakota and eastern Montana. But the migration to the Bakken may be stemming. Last week, Dave Galt, executive direction the Montana Petroleum Association sent out this bleak tweet: “New milestone today. Zero drill rigs working in Montana.”

With dropping oil prices, the number of rigs in North Dakota, the heart of America’s energy boom, is also dropping precipitously. The number of rigs working in that state recently dipped below 100 for the first time in five years and has continued to slide as – right now, anyway – drilling makes less economic sense.

So far, however, Montana counties on the eastern edge of the state near the Bakken have maintained rock-bottom jobless rates. Richland County, home of Sidney, has one of the lowest unemployment numbers in the state at 3.1 percent. But no longer is the rest of the state that far behind – the state average is just one point higher.

It will be interesting to watch unemployment numbers as the tourism season hits its stride this summer. While the lower price of oil has hurt economies that were largely insulated from the recent recession, the opposite may be true here, where visitor spending is so important to local businesses.

It’s cheaper to drive here and even domestic airline tickets, which are more reluctant to fall, should be a little less expensive this summer when compared to last year. To be sure, local tourism numbers can be influenced by a number of factors, including the weather, fires and when the Going-to-the Sun Road in Glacier National Park opens, but at least the latter looks promising.

The park announced that its plows are already nearing Logan Pass and the road should open earlier than usual with road construction completed on the west side. It has the makings of a big summer, even bigger than last year when, according to a report released last week, visitors spent a record $193 million in communities surrounding the park.

And the local economy is poised to reap the benefits.

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