Just in the past week, a fast-food restaurant in Kalispell advertised a job opening offering $13 an hour, $5 more than minimum wage. Another restaurant closed at 7 p.m. because it lacked sufficient staff to remain open full-time.
While the Flathead County economy has been growing at one of the fastest rates in Montana, many local businesses are feeling the significant strain of worker shortages.
“It’s a challenging time for our employers,” said Laura Gardner, manager of Flathead Job Service in downtown Kalispell.
The local job service has over 900 open positions currently posted, the most ever, Gardner said.
“Never in the history of the Job Service have we had that many. It’s amazing,” Gardner said.
The openings span a wide range of industries, from construction to manufacturing and professional services. But the most pressing needs involve tourism-related businesses in the service industry, which reaches peak demand in the busy summertime.
“There is a huge need in the service industry,” Gardner said. “It’s an important industry and we’ve got to serve tourists while they’re here, but we’re struggling to find people to serve them.”
Flathead County’s economy presents a complicated panorama. On one hand, nearly every aspect of the economy has rebounded at a steady rate since being battered worse than most regions during the recession, and now the Flathead stands alongside mighty Gallatin County as one of the state’s growth leaders. Economic development has experienced a noticeable uptick alongside population gains in recent years.
Yet on the other hand, the unemployment rate — 5.6 percent in April — stands out among the highest in the state and above the state average of 4.2 percent and the national average of 4.6 percent. Roughly 2,500 residents were out of work in the Flathead two months ago. The local labor force — 44,567 — is still 1,900 shy of the all-time high in April 2009.
Barbara Wagner, chief economist for the Department of Labor and Industry, said the valley’s economic makeup lends itself to having a fluid labor market.
“In regions like the Flathead that have a lot of tourist activity and construction activity, the normal unemployment rates tend to be a couple points higher because those industries tend to be highly seasonal,” Wagner said. “There is a constant churn.”
Wagner said the Flathead economy added roughly 1,300 jobs in 2015, which was “pretty strong job growth.”
“In comparison to the job growth, the unemployment is still pretty low,” she said.
Wagner said an unemployment rate around 4 percent would be considered normal by economists’ standards.
There are challenges to the economy in the Flathead, though. Among the barriers is a lack of affordable housing, including a difficult rental market, which creates a ripple effect on the labor force.
“We do have people who come in looking for a job but also can’t find a place to live,” Gardner said.
A common issue across Montana, wages are historically among the lowest on average in the U.S. The average hourly wage for all occupations in Montana was $18.79 an hour and $39,090 annually in 2014, according to Montana Department of Labor and Industry data. The Flathead Valley has the second lowest average wages in the state by region — $17.79 per hour and $37,000 annually.
Last year saw significant wage growth across Montana, including the Flathead, where the rate in this corner of the state hit 3.5 percent on average, the second highest in the state. Southwest Montana, which includes Gallatin County, led with 4.4 percent in 2015.
Worker shortages lead to increased wages and that appears to be happening locally.
“Wages are going up. They’re not near what we need them to be but we are seeing them go up, which is a good thing,” Gardner with the Job Service said. “We’re encouraging employers to increase wages and offer perks or benefits, but we’re still having a hard time getting people to apply.”
The shortage could harm economic development. This year four new hotels are opening in the valley — two in Whitefish, one in Kalispell and another in Columbia Falls. Yet these new businesses have had a hard time finding enough staff at almost every position, Gardner said.
“These hotels are struggling as they’re trying to open for summer,” she said.
Similarly, businesses in the manufacturing industry are still having a hard time finding skilled and trained employees in the local market.
Flathead Job Service has seen roughly 100 people per day coming in to use the free services the state agency offers, including computers for job searching and training for interviews.
The labor shortage is also tied to the retiring Baby Boomer generation. At least 130,000 baby boomers in Montana are expected to retire in the next decade, according to the Department of Labor and Industry. Nearly 6 percent of Montana’s labor force is over 65 with an additional 97,000 workers between the ages of 55 and 64.
Commissioner of Labor and Industry Pam Bucy has said that Montana doesn’t have enough younger people to fill those jobs even if every one of them entered the workforce.
For more information about finding a job in Flathead County, visit Flathead Job Service at 427 First Ave. E. or call 758-6200 or visit http://jobservices.dli.mt.gov/about-job-services/kalispell.
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