It’s no secret the Flathead is at its busiest during the summer, when tourists flock to the valley’s mountains and clear waters, spending their time and buoying many local businesses by spending their money.
And after several years of trying to break the recession’s icy grip on local cash flow, the influx of visitors is a much-appreciated boost. But for some businesses, these days it also means having to offer top dollar for seasonal employees, who were available by the dozens for every job opening during the recession but are now proving to be scarce.
In Columbia Falls, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which runs the hospitality services at the hotels and lodges in Glacier National Park, is scrambling. According to Marc Ducharme, the general manager of Xanterra’s Glacier division, the massive summer season has been spilling over into the shoulder seasons.
While this is a boost for businesses relying largely on tourism, Ducharme said it is proving to be difficult to find the seasonal workers – local, national and international – who can come on board now in the late spring and stay through the beginning of fall.
The seasonal staff at the lodges tends to come from different states or countries, not only adding to the worldly experience at the park, but also supplementing a skeleton crew of local workers.
“We attempt to hire as many locals and Americans as possible, but we just simply cannot satisfy our position with local and or Americans,” Ducharme said. “It’s really forced us to look internationally.”
Various college schedules from myriad countries make scheduling all of the open positions difficult, he said.
“It’s a real burden on us to try and find a market of employees to bring over from other states and other countries,” Ducharme said. “Our plan currently is to continue to work with our J-1 (visa) program to try and explore countries that have the ability to provide employees when we need them on these shoulders.”
For example, Ducharme said Xanterra has identified Japan and Ecuador as countries where college-aged students can still work through August because of their later starting dates. So when the workers who have been at the lodges all summer leave to go back to school in August, a new wave of seasonal workers starts to help finish out the season.
“Logistically it’s a nightmare. Our human resources department is amazing at doing this juggling act,” Ducharme said. “We still struggle in the spring, the late May-June season. Our best answer this year has been lots of overtime.”
It’s also been difficult to pin down a full passel of local workers for the Columbia Falls warehouse and laundry facilities, Ducharme said.
“We have really struggled to find locals. We have had a big challenge filling the positions in our warehouse and our laundry,” he said. “We perpetually have positions open.”
In Whitefish, McGarry’s Roadhouse is short staffed, according to owner Sandy Nogal, who has had to leave her post as the restaurant’s iconic bartender to help in the kitchen.
“Out of four line positions (in the kitchen), we’re two short,” Nogal said. “Like most restaurants in this valley, we’re all running short staffed. It’s mostly in culinary help, in kitchen help, the folks who usually are looking for work are not looking for work.”
Nogal said the restaurant has “help wanted” ads that go unanswered for months, despite raising pay to entice workers. She said the construction boom has likely pulled most of the seasonal workers to construction sites, but otherwise can’t understand where the workers are.
“This is not minimum wage. The market will determine what it takes to get folks’ attention, and we are all paying,” Nogal said. “These are all good-money jobs, even in kitchen help. We are paying top dollar.”
In Kalispell, Bill Nelson, manager of the Flathead Job Service, said the script has flipped from the one most employers were used to during the recession when work was scarce and unemployment was skyrocketing, when any job was better than no job.
Now, workers have a choice, Nelson said, and many are likely waiting until a good-paying job with a relevant skillset becomes available. As of July 27, there were about 700 job opportunities at the Job Service, Nelson said.
Unemployment in Flathead County rose to 5.2 percent in June, up from 4.7 percent in May, meaning roughly 2,340 work-age people are unemployed. Nelson said that is likely an indicator of more unemployed people starting to look for work again who are now being counted in the unemployment rate.
And at LC Staffing in Kalispell, branch manager Janie Hunter said all of the companies LC Staffing works with are searching for employees.
“The available work force is working,” Hunter said. “At this point it’s about luring the people away from a job they’re currently working.”
Hunter advised employers to look at what makes their jobs attractive, and make them more so. That’s what Nogal said her restaurant has tried to do, but she is still stuck in the kitchen making up for a lack of staff.
“If you had told me 12 years ago when we opened that there would not be a continuum of culinary help looking for work, I would have said you’re crazy,” Nogal said. “So the question is, where is everybody?”