Montana Reaches Two Years of Unemployment Rates Below 3%

Job growth rates remain in top half of U.S. states

By Blair Miller, Daily Montanan

With an unemployment rate of 2.8% in October, up from 2.7% last month, Montana has now seen two straight years of rates under 3%.

The governor’s office and Department of Labor and Industry continue to laud the low seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, as it had only been below 3% on three occasions beforehand since the rate started being measured in the 1970s.

It has ticked up slightly over the past six months, from 2.3% in May to 2.8% in October. That is also true of the three metropolitan areas the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics monitors over the past year: Billings, Great Falls and Missoula. But the statewide rate remains a full 1.1% below the U.S. average for October.

“With hardworking Montanans in mind, we’ll continue to cut red tape, lower taxes, and invest in a stronger workforce to make Montana an even better place to live, work, start a business, and raise a family,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement.

The state said the labor force in Montana grew by 700 workers last month, now totaling 9,000 new workers since the start of January. Data show the state has added 33,100 payroll jobs, a 6.8% increase, since February 2020 just before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Fifty of the state’s counties currently have unemployment rates below 4%, and many of them have seen net job gains over the year, according to data from the state and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, a few counties have seen steep job losses, including Madison County, where 780 fewer people are employed this year compared to last. Gallatin County, on the other hand, has seen 3,543 additional people become employed over the last year.

Unemployment rates are also higher on Montana’s seven reservations – ranging from a non-seasonally adjusted rate of 3.7% on the Flathead Indian Reservation up to 10.2% on Rocky Boy’s reservation.

Montana sits about in the middle of the pack of U.S. states in terms of net employment growth, payroll jobs growth, and labor force growth since February 2020. But in terms of a percentage of growth compared to the total population employed, it ranks in the upper quarter of U.S. states, and outpaces the U.S. average in all three categories.

Around 5,900 Montanans are currently receiving unemployment insurance benefit payments, which has been about the norm for this time in November compared to the past two years. That number peaked around 83,000 in April 2020, but has been in the range of 5,000-7,000 consistently since summer 2021.

But there remain more than 13,000 job openings compared to the number of people hired as of August – a trend which has been steady since summer 2021, indicating there are still thousands of unfilled positions in Montana. A Montana DLI report published in September showed finding suitable or affordable housing in some areas of the state remained a barrier to filling jobs.

As of August, Montana had the 10th-highest job opening rate in the U.S. at 6.6%, though it historically has a higher percentage of job openings compared to the U.S. average. But only about 5% of people who are not currently employed in Montana are actively looking for work; the vast majority of jobless people are not seeking work and are retired.

The state’s labor force participation rate, which had outpaced the U.S. rate through most of the first three years of the pandemic, now sits about average with the U.S. rate, at 62.6% as of September.

In total over the past year, the number of nonfarm jobs has increased by 1.6% in Montana, with growth in nearly every major sector aside from information, which fell by 6.9% over the year and includes the data processing and telecommunications industries.

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.

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