Jobs Report: Montana Wages Low, but Rising

Montana wages rising faster than national average despite declines in energy industry

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana’s wages are still among the lowest in the nation, but they are rising faster than the national average despite declines in the energy industry, according to a report released Tuesday.

Jobs and wages have emerged as key issues in this year’s governor’s race between Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte. Both candidates addressed jobs and wages in separate public appearances Tuesday as their campaigns kick into high gear two months before the Nov. 8 election.

Bullock presented the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s annual Labor Day report in Helena. The report says the average wage in Montana rose 3 percent in 2015 to $40,065, while inflation was only 0.1 percent, giving the state its biggest one-year jump in real wage growth since officials began analyzing the data in 1990.

During the last 10 years, state wages have increased by an annual average of 3.2 percent, compared with 2.7 percent nationally, according to the report.

A stronger economy and tighter labor market are driving the growth, the report said. It also cited the state’s relatively low unemployment rate and high entrepreneurship as strong economic indicators.

The news wasn’t all rosy. The report noted that mining and utilities — which make up more than 8 percent of the state’s gross domestic product — declined nearly 14 percent, with oil and gas drilling being a particular drag. The transportation industry also fell more than 6 percent in 2015, likely because of decreased demand for trucking and rail by the energy industry.

Wages dropped about 2 percent in eastern Montana because of low oil prices, but the increases in the southwestern part of the state around Bozeman and Butte more than offset the fall, according to the report.

Montana has a long way to catch up to the rest of the nation in wages. The average wage in Montana is about three-quarters of the national average, and Montana consistently ranks in the bottom five states.

Gianforte, citing IRS tax data, repeatedly says in campaign appearances that Montana ranks 49th in wages. Montana Labor Department chief economist Barbara Wagner put the state’s ranking at 47th in 2015.

The report released Tuesday said the low wage rankings are partially explained by the large number of part-time workers in the state, and that Montana’s ranking rises to 45th when comparing states’ hourly wages.

Montana State University political scientist David Parker also has pointed out that the IRS data Gianforte cites may be skewed by Montana having a relatively large number of retirees, who don’t report any income.

While Bullock was touting the jobs report in Helena on Tuesday, Gianforte held a news conference in Billings to revive a telecommuting campaign that he started last year. The Bozeman technology entrepreneur said he bought satellite radio and internet ads this week targeting Montanans working in Seattle and Denver, telling them to come back home and bring their jobs with them.

If he is elected, he said he plans to send mailers to alumni from colleges around the state, urging them to telecommute from Montana. “It’s not the entire solution, but it’s an important component,” Gianforte said.

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