Snowplow Staffing Shortage Could Impact Roadways

MDT has 50% of seasonal snowplow drivers statewide while northwest Montana is down 16%

By Maggie Dresser
Snowy roads in Kalispell on Dec. 6, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) is following nationwide trends of staffing shortages with only 50% of seasonal snowplow operators statewide, which may delay clearing Montana’s roadways, according to MDT officials.

“MDT is facing significant staffing shortages in a number of areas across the state and will work proactively to clear Montana’s highways by shifting crews to the affected areas when possible,” MDT Maintenance Administrator Jon Swartz said.

In the Kalispell Division, MDT is four positions short among Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls and Maintenance Chief Justun Juelfs says the department is actively onboarding and recruiting more staff. Northwest Montana’s staffing is 16% lower than historical winter staffing levels. Seasonal staff onboard is usually completed by Thanksgiving.

“There’s no doubt about it, we’re short for the season,” Juelfs said.

To mitigate the snowplow driver shortage, Juelfs is frontloading the morning shift, which start at 4 a.m., to prioritize commuter traffic and school buses to ensure national highway system roadways like U.S. Highway 93 and U.S. Highway 2 are cleared early in the morning. Fewer resources will be used in the afternoon and evening shifts, which end at 10 p.m.

Primary roads like highways 35, 82 and 83 are prioritized next, followed by secondary roads like Farm to Market Road and Highway 206.

MDT is working to shift resources to focus on the hardest hit areas, meeting weekly with the National Weather Service and reporting road conditions to educate Montana travelers.

With fewer applicants than normal, Juelfs says MDT is using alternative recruiting methods like reaching out to Flathead Valley Community College, attending high school career fairs and targeting social media advertising. Entry level wages pay more than $23 an hour.

“It’s just a different day than when I started, which was over 20 years ago,” Juelfs said. “We had no problem filling these positions. Now, there’s just no applications.”

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