Jobless and Jobs

Our unemployment rates don’t tell the whole story

By Kellyn Brown

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry estimates that Flathead County’s non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate in April was 5.1 percent, or about 0.5 percentage points better than a year prior. Meanwhile, the state’s rate reached a historically low mark of 4 percent. Comparing the two, it’s easy to wonder why our county’s rate is persistently higher than the state’s mark.

Help wanted signs are everywhere; the local job service has posted a record number of open positions in recent years.

You see, our unemployment rates don’t tell the whole story. Where our local economy is setting itself apart, especially when focusing on recent state Labor Department numbers, is the amount of jobs it’s creating. In just the last year, it’s estimated that Flathead County has added 1,072 people to its current employment rolls. That’s the second most of any county in the state.

And when comparing Montana’s six most populous counties, two stand out for job growth. It’s not even close.

April Job Change from Last Year by County

  • Gallatin: 1,111
  • Flathead: 1,072
  • Missoula: 280
  • Cascade: -253
  • Yellowstone: -265
  • Lewis and Clark: -511

Three of the six counties have lost jobs over the last year, yet all three are recording lower jobless rates than a year prior, which could be attributed to a number of factors, such as lower labor participation rates or slowing population growth.

Gallatin has been, by far, the fastest-growing county in the state over the last five years. Flathead ranks second, although it has lagged far behind until recently. According to the latest U.S. Census figures, Gallatin County added 3,738 residents between July 2016 and July 2017 and Flathead added 2,307 during that time. While that’s still quite the discrepancy, it’s beginning to close compared to previous years.

And, according to April’s labor market data, jobs are beginning to follow. To be sure, this is one report and numbers can change quickly, but it also appears to be part of a larger trend where employment growth is beginning to catch up, or at least keep pace, with what we’re seeing in local population growth.

It’s true that over the last decade Flathead has had a persistently higher jobless rate compared to other Montana counties, and even last month’s strong number is the ninth highest in the state. But it’s also true that the local labor market is extraordinarily tight. So what gives?

There are plenty of theories. Perhaps the qualifications are too stringent for certain jobs. Perhaps job seekers are too particular or unmotivated to find employment. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Employers struggling to fill positions are not unique to the Flathead. And if employment and labor force projections released earlier this year by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry hold up, it’s only expected to worsen. The report forecasts that the state’s labor force will continue to lag behind demand, “leaving roughly 1,000 fewer workers than jobs per year for the next ten years,” with a potential unemployment rate of just 2 percent by 2026.

A jobless rate that low is almost meaningless. Where the sought-after jobs are located will matter the most.

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