Outlook 2020: Another Year of Job Growth

A low unemployment rate in the expanding Flathead Valley keeps industries short-handed

By Maggie Dresser
A job fair at the Gateway Community Center. Beacon file photo

As the economy booms in the Flathead Valley, along with the rest of the nation, Montana continues to struggle filling job openings as 2020 arrives.

Job vacancies remain open in the valley while unemployment continues its low trend, contributing to the workforce shortage. Montana’s unemployment rate has hovered between 3 and 4 percent over the last year, with 3.4 percent in November 2019 and 3.7 percent in November 2018. Montana’s unemployment rate is slightly lower than the national average of 3.5 percent.

But a low unemployment rate means employers can’t find workers.

Flathead County’s unemployment rate, which sat at 4.6 percent in November, was above Montana’s average, but Laura Gardner, manager of Job Service Kalispell, says this is typical. She says unemployment rates usually increase in October because construction and tourism tapers off in the winter months.

“It’s not alarming,” Gardner said.

While Gardner says it’s difficult to predict what 2020’s job availability has in store, low unemployment rates are expected to continue this year, she said.

“Worker shortage in Montana is caused by two factors,” Montana Department of Labor and Industry Chief Economist Barbara Wagner said. “One is we’ve had very good economic growth over the last 10 years. Second is age demographics.”

According to economists at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, baby boomers heading into retirement are a significant cause for the worker shortage.

“There’s simply not enough younger people to replace those numbers of retirement,” Wagner said.

Contrasting the departure of baby boomers, Wagner says Montana’s new labor force is coming from young, out-of-state individuals moving to the area.

According to a 2017 report conducted by the Department of Labor and Industry, 40 percent of people moving to Montana have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to the current 33 percent of residents, meaning they are more qualified for higher skilled jobs.

From 2013 to 2017, more than 1,000 people migrated to Flathead County from out of state, one of the highest numbers following Missoula County with 2,000 and Gallatin County with 2,500.

As economic growth is predicted, Wagner says workforce will start to grow more consistently every year and she expects a tight labor market to continue through 2025.

Wagner expects construction to be the fastest growing employer in upcoming years while health care is adding the highest number of jobs right now.

“It doesn’t matter what industry, everyone seems to have a hard time finding enough workers,” Gardner said.

To address labor shortages, Gardner says the Montana Job Service encourages employers to invest in their current employees, especially if they’re not finding people with the right skills.

Employers are also starting to offer additional benefits to employees aside from traditional benefits like health insurance and retirement. Additional perks like flexible work schedules, gym memberships and bringing your dog to work are keeping employees engaged, Gardner said.

The Department of Labor and Industry also gains success from the Montana Registered Apprenticeship program, which helps set up training programs. In addition to traditional trades like electricians, the program offers additional trades like technology, master brewer and lodging manager jobs. But Wagner says a majority of the training programs are for construction jobs.

“The truth of the matter is we have a worker shortage,” Wagner said. “That means nearly every employer in the state is trying ways to recruit the best workers. It’s a great environment for a worker. There’s many different types of employers in the state of Montana that are trying new ways for successful work.”

The Department of Labor and Industry will host Making Montana, a networking event with makers, manufacturers and technology companies at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, Feb. 29.

For more information, 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.

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