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Record low jobless rate forces employers to get creative

December 27, 2018

Record low unemployment rates across the country have infiltrated the Flathead Valley as well, but with so many doors opening for employees, local employers are having to get creative in how they recruit, hire and retain workers, according to Laura Gardner, manager of Job Service Kalispell.

The summer of 2018 brought unemployment in the Flathead down to 3.6 percent over July and August, the lowest seen in the last 10 years.

Lower wages, coupled with a higher cost of living compared to much of the country, present challenges for job seekers looking to move to the Flathead Valley, especially for entry-level workers unable to make ends meet on minimum wage, Gardner said.

Some who opt for a second job to supplement their income, Gardner said, struggle to juggle the hours demanded by two jobs, and miss out on the recreation and lifestyle opportunities that make the Flathead Valley unique and attractive.

As employers compete for a limited supply of workers, however, Gardner said wages have begun to increase.

Some businesses that cannot afford to increase their wages have begun offering other additional forms of compensation for their workers, such as flexible scheduling options, improved work environments and other benefits.

“It’s certainly a job seeker’s market out there, with opportunities to decide where it is that they want to work based on what their values are,” Gardner said.

Gardner said she also encourages employers to dip into the untapped corners of the workforce when hiring. Through the Job Service, she advocates for looking at demographics employers might not normally look at, including younger, older and disabled employees, or employees with a felony or criminal background.

Some employers that previously might have required specific experience, training or degrees, are now restructuring positions to incorporate work-based learning, internships and apprenticeships.

Integrating such programs allows potential employees to earn income while learning skills on the job and participating in additional online or book learning.

According to Gardner, there are currently over 600 job openings posted in Flathead County.

Worker shortages, she said, have affected industries across the board, from health care to manufacturing to education to service providers.

In her 35 years with the Job Service, Gardner said she cannot remember ever seeing unemployment so low.

One of the largest contributing factors to the current rate, she said, was the en masse retirements of baby boomers and disproportionate number of next-generation workers entering the workforce to take their place.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry estimates the next decade will bring at least 120,000 retirements among the state’s baby-boomer population.

The department predicted around 4,500 workers will be added to the economy each year to fill those positions, making for an appreciable gap.

The Montana statewide employment projections for 2017to 2027 predict a total of nearly 62,000 job openings over the next decade, with jobs requiring a high school diploma or less accounting for 44,000 of those positions.

Three years ago, Steven Thompson, president of Thompson Precision in Kalispell, said he recalls his job postings eliciting an overwhelming response from applicants.

Today, however, four positions stand open with no candidates to fill them, Thompson said. Thompson Precision is a high-end machining and fabrication business that creates highly detailed parts for the areospace, medical, semiconductor and firearms industries.

Thompson has the hardest time filling positions requiring experience, he said. The company has started recruiting more employees from out of state.

“We’ve just had to get a lot more aggressive in recruiting people and have a more long-term focus,” Thompson said.

Despite the difficulty in hiring, retaining employees comes a bit easier for Thompson, he said, with a turnover rate of less than 14 percent.

He attributed such successful retention to the fact that, for a smaller corporation, Thompson Precision offers its employees several larger benefits, including full health insurance, vision and dental plans, matching retirement plans and paid vacations and holidays.

Though the benefits attract willing workers, however, Thompson estimated that within the last few years, the company has increased starting pay by around 20 percent.

Thompson said his company actively works with high school manufacturing programs and the local community college to entice future workers into the field and into his company.

Still, he said, the number of machinists and workers produced by the programs has not been meeting demands.

“Employers are having to get creative in how they deliver their services when they don’t have enough employees to do the work that needs to be done,” Gardner said.

Without the employees needed to keep up with his company’s clientele, Thompson said he’s had to limit the contracts he accepts.

“Right now we seem to have more interest in our capability than we can deliver,” he said.

On the bright side, he said, the company can pick and choose which projects and clients to service according to what best suits the business.

However, he’s noted that his customers want more from the company than he currently has the capacity to provide.

Thompson said he stays hopeful that as local programs within high schools and Flathead Valley Community College grow, the number of skilled workers available to him will grow with them, giving him a larger pool of locally trained employees to hire.

Still, Gardner said, the current economy portrays growth and success more than struggle and decline.

She cited ongoing and expanding construction occurring across the valley as a sign that “things are looking good economy-wise.”

“It’s a much better problem to have than in the recession when businesses were closing and jobs were being lost,” she said. “I’m hoping we continue with our strong economy and continue to look fore ways to help employers with worker shortage.”

Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or mtaylor@dailyinterlake.com.

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