After the pandemic sent Montana’s economy reeling last spring, Flathead County along with the rest of the state is almost back to a pre-pandemic job market after a swift recovery this summer and fall.
“We’ve gone through a pretty dramatic 2020 with the coronavirus and the recovery we’ve had,” Montana Department of Labor and Industry (DLI) Chief Economist Barbara Wagner said. “Montana is recovering from the recession a lot faster than other states and faster than the nation.”
Flathead County is nearly 100% recovered, Wagner said.
Flathead County is down only 286 jobs overall compared to 2019, less than a 1% decline. There were 44,825 people employed in November 2020 compared to a prerecession employment of 45,111 in November 2019, according to DLI data. The county’s 5.4% unemployment rate is slightly higher than the state’s unemployment rate of 4.9%, which Job Service Kalispell Manager Laura Gardner says is normal.
“Even though Flathead County’s unemployment rate in November was a little higher than the state, it was lower than the national average,” Gardner said. “We typically see a little bit of an uptick in the winter months. It’s nothing alarming at this point and there’s still a lot happening in the Flathead Valley.”
Despite Montana’s quick economic recovery since the pandemic began, Wagner anticipates the state’s job growth to slow down in the coming months.
“We’ve had a very strong employment recovery so far in Montana,” Wagner said. “I do anticipate the rate of job growth to start slowing during these last few months before we get a vaccine. Part of that is we’ve seen a strong recovery in nearly every industry that can come back, but there are jobs missing in the labor and hospitality industries.”
Since some hospitality jobs won’t return until a vaccine is widely available, the recovery rate will start to slow down. In October and November, Montana added 3,000 jobs per month, Wagner said, but she doesn’t expect this trend to continue while the pandemic is still happening.
“We gained what we could really, really rapidly and faster than the U.S.,” Wagner said. “But we still have a ways to go and it’s going to be a long haul.”
Montana’s rural landscape made social distancing easier than much of the country, which led to fewer job losses to begin with and a quicker reopening of the economy. Montana benefited from more industries deemed essential than elsewhere in the nation.
Montana’s unemployment rate sat at 11% in April 2020 while the nation was at almost 15%. In November 2020, Montana dropped to 4.9% compared to the rest of the country, which dropped to 6.7%.
From April to November, Montana had 71% growth in leisure and hospitality jobs, many of which were lost in the spring. Meanwhile, the construction industry lost few jobs from the start. There were 31,400 construction jobs in February 2020 compared to 29,700 in April 2020. The industry has seen a 2.4% job gain since April.
In the Flathead, Gardner is noticing employment opportunities in a wide range in industries, including the service industry, healthcare and construction.
While many individuals lost employment this year, some industries experienced a workforce shortage due to schools and childcare shutting down. But since schools reopened this fall and childcare issues began to resolve, many parents returned to the labor force this fall.
In the long term, Wagner says there’s still a labor shortage on the horizon as baby boomers retire without enough workers to replace them. A lack of healthcare workers continues to be an issue as the healthcare industry grows and baby boomers retire.
Job Service Kalispell continues to help prospective employees and businesses virtually, despite the building’s closed doors.
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