Another Tight Year for the Job Market

As the Flathead Valley prepares for another busy spring and summer, employers, labor officials, and others are working on solutions to staff shortages

Mountains of snow still stood outside despite the emerging spring weather, and Laura Gardner had nearly 700 open jobs on her board.

As the manager for the Job Service Kalispell, Gardner said the winter cold didn’t slow down the employment market in the Flathead much, and she anticipates a continued tight labor market as the valley eyes another spring and summer.

“We currently have 696 open jobs that are listed,” Gardner said last week. “It has started to pick up now with the nicer spring weather; more things are opening up again.”

Sustained growth has been the story in the Flathead job market for the last couple of years, with unemployment rates continuing to shrink or stay low, and businesses feeling the impact. Last summer several businesses had to adjust hours because they didn’t have enough staff to cover the shift, and contractors found difficulty hiring skilled workers.

The staffing shortages aren’t limited to construction or the service industry, however.

“I can’t find an industry that’s not touched by the shortages,” Gardner said. “Definitely we see a lot in the health care field, and we’re always looking for folks in our tourism and hospitality industry, and then, of course, construction.”

Job Service Kalispell will host a job fair at the Gateway Community Center on April 25.

David Smith, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, said staffing is still a major issue for contractors and construction crews. He said for every three people who leave the construction industry, only one enters.

“It’s the same thing in every part of the state — people have work to do; they just don’t have the workers,” Smith said.

Larger general contractors are always recruiting and training, Smith said, and they have more resources and are working on big projects. They aren’t struggling as badly with staffing shortages, Smith said, because they shift their workers from one project to the next. And these larger businesses are able to hire the trade workers, such as electricians, to work solely on their projects, thus removing them from the labor pool.

According to the state Department of Labor and Industry, the problems around staffing shortages are likely to continue. The state expects to add 3,860 each year until 2027, but the labor force is expected to grow by 3,640 workers each year in the same timeframe.

Northwest Montana alone is projected to add 1,380 jobs each year until 2027, increasing at an annual growth rate of 0.9 percent. The only other region in the state expected to grow faster is the southwest corner — the area including and around Gallatin County — which is expected to add 1,425 jobs a year and grow annually at 0.9 percent.

The rest of the state should add jobs as well, but none of the other regions break 1,000 jobs per year.

A shortage of workers isn’t a new problem, and locally, several interested parties have formed a Workforce Initiative Group, which includes Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley Community College; Mark Flatau, superintendent of School District 5 in Kalispell; Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce; and Gardner with the Job Service.

Gardner said the new group has been trying to brainstorm ideas to combat the worker shortage.

“Everybody is recognizing the issue and trying to come up with ideas, but it’s no one easy answer,” Gardner said. “It’s going to take all of us working together to come up with ideas.”

One idea that is gaining momentum across the state is the resurgence of apprenticeships. Job Service Kalispell will soon have a dedicated apprenticeship representative who can work with the job service to create more apprenticeship opportunities. Terry Aubrey will start in the position on April 1.

And if a business doesn’t use an actual apprentice program, the idea is to build a worker from the ground up instead of waiting for the perfect candidate to apply.

“Hire for attitude, train for skill, and the smart companies do that,” Smith said.

Companies are also advised to search for their workers outside the typical employee pool and consider older workers, workers with disabilities, and workers with felonies, Gardner said.

Christina Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, said the job market in the tech sector is also tight, but Montana has the advantage of being beautiful, which keeps people here.

In a recent survey of tech companies, MHTBA found that quality of life plays a big role in modern job searching. People are more willing to relocate to Montana even if the position might pay less, she said, and that’s largely based on a bigger focus on a work-life balance.

“Those two factors play into the lack of turnover that we have; we have a very loyal and committed and engaged workforce,” Henderson said. “We have a real asset in the lack of turnover especially compared to other tech hubs.”

The Flathead Valley is one of the top places attracting those workers, she said.

“Technology allows that to be possible, and socially people are more inclined to want to live in places that have these great natural amenities,” Henderson said.

She also said a four-year degree isn’t necessary for many of these tech jobs.

“There are so many of these jobs that could be done with two-year degrees or certificates,” Henderson said.