Like I Was Saying

Help Desperately Wanted

A growing service industry is in competition with itself for a finite number of employees

By Kellyn Brown

Flathead County’s unemployment rate in March stood at 5.6%, according to the Labor Department, which isn’t especially good. In fact, it’s the eighth highest rate among Montana’s 56 counties and well above the statewide jobless number of 3.8%.

Meanwhile, nearly everywhere I look, local businesses have posted “Help Wanted” signs. They adorn fast food joints and retailers like they always do. But now, as the busy summer season quickly approaches, far more sectors than usual are jockeying for workers. And they are nowhere to be found. 

Some restaurants have temporarily shut down or limited their respective hours because they can’t staff the kitchen. Construction projects will now take longer and cost more. Meanwhile, the local Job Service has hundreds of listings, many for management positions. Between the Pizza Huts in Kalispell and Columbia Falls I counted 15 openings. 

Recently, I received a press release announcing that a customer experience technology company would be adding 150 full-time employees at its local office. My first thought was, “That’s great for the region.” My second, “Where are they going to find them?” The company is offering a $500 sign-on bonus, so that may help. 

Despite all the jobs, Flathead County had 132 fewer workers in February than it did a year prior. There could be a number of reasons for this, but one factor employers point to is the enhanced jobless benefits included in President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 stimulus bill.

While less than the boost provided during the worst of the pandemic, unemployed Americans currently receive an additional $300 in weekly benefits through September. And that, in theory, has prevented more of them from rejoining the workforce since they can make nearly as much doing nothing. 

To be sure, not everyone agrees on this. Some economists argue that there is still a portion of the population that is reluctant to return to the service industry over COVID-19 fears. Another factor is parents still struggling to find childcare and those who do weighing the accompanying costs against one parent staying home. 

In a small sign that more Americans are ready to work, last week U.S. jobless claims plunged to 576,000, the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic and way down from a peak of 900,000 in early January. But Flathead County businesses face several challenges that are unique to this area. 

For one, much of our economy is now tourism dependent, which means a growing service industry is in competition with itself for a finite number of employees. Many employers already struggle to cover their margins while also offering living wages as local housing prices explode across the valley. In some instances, simply paying more doesn’t make economic sense. 

To make matters worse, the pool of applicants has shrunk further since fewer teenagers are working after-school or summer jobs. Forty years ago, 60% of American teens had jobs. Today that number has fallen to 35%, according to the Brookings Institute, with many students instead focusing on their academics and extracurricular activities. 

Summer is just around the corner and, with it, thousands of additional people will arrive looking to eat, drink, stay and recreate. An open question is whether we will have the workforce to support them or if more business operations will be disrupted due to the lack of help. 

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