Jobs Issue

Ask the Expert: Job Service Kalispell Manager Laura Gardner

The local Montana Department of Labor and Industry expert answers questions about unemployment trends and the Northwest Montana Job and Opportunity Fair in April

By Maggie Dresser

After years of low statewide unemployment rates that have hovered around 2.5% and resulted in a chronic workforce shortage across Montana’s industries, employers and state officials say the labor market is loosening as rates slowly rise and applicant pools grow. While Montana’s unemployment rate reached 3.4% in February and Flathead County grew to 4.9%, Job Service Kalispell Manager Laura Gardner says it’s a notable jump following three consecutive years that didn’t surpass 3%. She spoke with the Beacon to answer questions about unemployment trends, the workforce shortage and employee recruitment.

The following is an excerpt from that conversation that has been edited for clarity.

What direction are unemployment numbers trending toward?

The unemployment rate in January was 4.9% for Flathead County, where we really haven’t seen that high of a rate since March of 2021 when we were still coming out of the pandemic year. It was fairly high, but then it kicked down after that and so it is something that we are watching. The state and U.S. rates are still not bad, and it’s been staying around 3.7%. So, we’re watching that, and we really are not sure how to take it but it could be more of a normalizing of the economy.

Is the workforce shortage easing?

What we’re hearing from businesses is that they are getting more candidates to apply for jobs and there are better quality candidates to choose from. So, it feels like things have changed, which is great for our businesses to be able to have some good skilled workers. Before when the unemployment rate was so low, everybody was working and it was hard to get people with the skills and qualifications that you want.

How can business owners think outside the box to attract employees?

If they look at any of those untapped workforce populations, we’re always talking to employers about high school kids, retirees, people with a felony criminal background, the veteran and the disabled workforce. So, we’re always trying to focus on those five untapped populations that maybe they don’t necessarily think about, but we really encourage employers to look for ways to be able to hire that group. And of course, teaching high school kids work ethic is always super important.

What can employers expect at the job fair at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on April 11?

We are encouraging businesses that both are hiring and want to teach high school and college kids about opportunities in their industries. We’re really encouraging them to register and be a part of that. We will have the career fair in the morning for the busloads of kids that are going to be dropped off and then later that afternoon and evening is the job fair. So even if employers aren’t hiring, we’d love to have them at the career fair in the morning so high school kids can see the opportunities we have here in our area.