Montana’s economy is expected to continue to grow in 2019, but little is expected to budge in terms of employment as the state continues to wrestle with a worker shortage.
The November 2018 seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dipped to 3.7 percent in Montana, below the normal range and matching the nationwide mark, and Flathead County posted 4.7 percent unemployment. In 2013, Montana’s rate was 5.4 percent and the county’s was 7.7. Projections have the unemployment rate holding steady, if not dipping even lower, in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry expects 0.7 percent job growth in 2019, slightly lower than recent years, something partly attributable to the tight labor market. While low unemployment may sound like a good thing, the reality of the current economy is a bit more nuanced.
“There’s both good things and bad things,” Barbara Wagner, the labor department’s chief economist, said of the low unemployment rate. “It’s hard for businesses to find workers to fill open positions and that can restrict the business’s growth, but there’s some positive things on the worker’s side like faster wage growth … a benefit, both for our workers and the economy. Those wages are spent within the Montana economy.”
Some of the blame for the state’s worker shortage can be traced back to those in the Baby Boomer generation, who have been leaving jobs en masse in recent years as they reach retirement age. Wagner pointed out that the number of people entering the labor force now simply cannot keep up with the retirements.
“It’s really a matter of perspective; it’s not ‘young people, they just don’t want to work,’” she said. “That’s not the case. There are just not as many people as the Baby Boomer generation.”
Wagner said that companies dealing with worker shortages have started to increase wages in recent years, especially on the lower end of the wage spectrum, in an effort to attract employees, and those with full staffs have placed an added emphasis on training and retention since qualified new employees have become more difficult to find. The state’s Registered Apprenticeship program, which offers learning opportunities in a number of fields through both classroom and on-the-job training, has been steadily growing as the unemployment rate has dipped. In 2017, 554 Montana businesses sponsored 2,082 active apprenticeships across all industries, and the number of new apprentices was 687 in 2017, more than double the number (324) in 2012.
Both the sponsor businesses and the state office build the curriculums that are followed by apprentices, constructing programs that typically take three to four years to complete. Once an apprentice is certified in Montana — in anything from plumbing to nursing to information technology — that certification is recognized across the United States. That said, Wagner estimated that around 80 percent of apprentices are hired by the business that directed them to the program in the first place.
As for the greater job market, Wagner predicted continued growth in both health care (Montana’s largest private employer) and construction, industries that both have a major presence in Flathead County. Available jobs in the retail and hospitality sectors could also increase, although those opportunities tend to be at lower wage levels, where turnover is high.
Low-wage workers will see a small bump in their paycheck this year, however, as the state’s minimum wage increased to $8.50 per hour as of Jan. 1. The 20-cent increase is a legally mandated adjustment for inflation, which was high this year. The minimum wage also increased slightly, due to inflation, in 2018. This year’s increase, Wagner said, could push some to re-enter the workforce.
“Montana has a fairly high labor force participating already, but higher wages and continued job openings help bring people in,” Wagner said. “We could see increased labor force participation, and it will give people a greater incentive to work.”
Closer to home, more than 400 Kalispell jobs were listed on the Job Service Montana website as of Dec. 28 despite Flathead County’s relatively high unemployment rate. At 4.7 percent in November, Flathead ranks 48th out of 56 Montana counties, and two other local counties — Glacier (7.3) and Lincoln (6.6) — rank 53rd and 55th, respectively. Unemployment is also high on the Blackfeet Reservation, where 10.1 percent of potential employees were out of work.
For more information on the state’s Registered Apprenticeship program, visit http://apprenticeship.mt.gov. If you are looking for work or seeking employees in Flathead County, contact Job Service Kalispell at (406) 758-6200.