Opinion

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Like I Was Saying

Looming Labor Shortage

It's expected to get worse before it gets better

Earlier this month, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration celebrated the state’s economy during its annual Labor Day Report. Jobs are aplenty. The unemployment rate is low. Wages are rising.

On the other end of this equation, however, is a worker shortage that is hampering employers’ ability to hire people. Some area restaurants have had to cut back their hours of operation. Contractors are booked through 2019. I’ve heard stories of multiple employees simply not showing up for work because they know they can get a job elsewhere.

On the flip side, of course, talented and dependable staffers are in high demand in just about every sector of the local economy. Perusing the job-posting site indeed.com, you’ll find openings for everything from dishwashers to operation managers, from pet groomers to financial reporting specialists.

Employees now have more opportunity to enter new fields and choose to change jobs. Despite recent gains, Montana’s average annual wages with benefits and bonuses still rank among the lowest in the country. That number should improve in the coming years, but it’s hard to imagine paychecks will increase enough to attract enough people needed to fill a labor shortage expected to get worse before it gets better.

We have a large population of Baby Boomers in our state and about 100,000 workers — or one-fifth of the current workforce — are forecast to retire over the next decade. Consequently, “the labor force in the next five years is expected to expand by roughly 3,200 workers per year,” according to the report. “During the same period employment is projected to grow by 4,200 jobs.”

If these estimates hold true, the already low jobless rate will be pushed lower and the worker shortage will intensify. And there are no easy solutions for employers looking for help.

Montana is already adding 6,300 people a year and has the 15th fastest growing population in the country. But, according to the report, in-migration won’t be enough to meet demand. In other words, employers will need to be creative and invest in their workforce if they want to keep it.

Over the next few years, this should include training and partnering with local high schools and colleges to gain access to new workers. Locally, Flathead Valley Community College has solicited input from area employers on what skills their workforce needs. The college also participated in the state’s workforce project RevUp Montana, which emphasized placing students in short-term degree, certificate and apprenticeship programs that can quickly lead to high-wage, high-demand jobs.

Late last year, Jim Berve, president of the Montana Contractors’ Association board of directors, sounded the alarm in his industry, saying a nationwide survey revealed that 70 percent of contractors were struggling to find employees.

“It’s time to take back the honor associated with jobs that involve men and women working with their hands and brains to build the houses, roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and water systems that make Montana our home,” Berve wrote.

With jobless claims recently falling to a nearly five-decade low, I doubt it’s gotten much better for contractors or anyone else.

The Labor Day Report does predict that after 2022, Montana’s “labor force should expand more quickly because the wave of Baby Boomers retirements will have mostly passed.” Until then, employees should have the upper hand.

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