Missoula businesses want workers trained to learn

James Grunke


“There are no good jobs in Missoula.”

I’ve heard it said. So have you. More times than we’d like to admit.

But it simply isn’t true. Businesses in our community continually seek employees who think creatively, communicate effectively, act decisively – and, most of all, know how to learn.

These jobs pay excellent wages and offer solid paths for advancement, and they’re right here in Missoula. So why do so many people still believe in, and perpetuate, the no-good-jobs myth?

Missoula has an abundance of highly educated, passionate, civically engaged workers who are underemployed because they don’t realize that they possess the very skills an equally abundant bunch of employers are seeking.

We have all heard of the Ph.D. barista or an anthropologist-bartender, or an honors grad with an armful of part-time jobs, none of whom seem to understand that there are great jobs in town for which they are perfectly suited.

Missoula employers want workers trained to learn. They want employees with broad interests who can solve problems and communicate those solutions to others, who are valued members of any team and are engaged in our community.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told Forbes magazine last year: “Studying philosophy taught me two things. I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true – like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces – until they realized that it wasn’t true.”

A 2015 Hart Research Associates Survey proclaimed liberal arts graduates the most-wanted of all job candidates. Why? Breadth of knowledge in a wide range of disciplines, civic and intercultural knowledge, and intellectual abilities that include “analytical skills, critical and creative thinking, written and verbal communication, quantitative literacy, information literacy, problem solving, teamwork and ethical reasoning,” according to Drake University President David Maxwell.

So how do we fully engage Missoula’s underemployed workers? We need career counselors and mentors who themselves are creative thinkers, and who can inspire liberal arts graduates to look broadly into the job market.

Business and technical fields have done this for years, counseling students and even would-be students about job opportunities and connecting them directly with potential employers. They’ve established networks and internships and clear paths for the future.

We must recognize that we are the home of the flag ship liberal arts university in Montana and take advantage of it. In his recent State of the University comments, President Royce Engstrom said the following:

“I believe that the University of Montana can be among the most effective institutions in that exciting world. From my point-of-view, our work should be guided by this statement:

Today’s world presents exciting and complex opportunities and challenges like never before. Our job is to educate students so that they thrive in that complex environment and to contribute knowledge applicable to those opportunities. Our vision is to prepare the Leaders, Citizens, and Professionals who will contribute to a vibrant and prosperous democracy.

We achieve that vision

• Through a broad range of educational programming essential to today’s needs and opportunities, firmly grounded in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills, taught by a world-class faculty of teacher-scholars.

• Through groundbreaking research and scholarship focused on questions and opportunities of high impact, that enriches the education of our students, and that generates pride and excitement among our constituents.

• By building a distinctive and vibrant student-focused learning environment that capitalizes on our expansive campus life, our unique host community, and our stunning natural environment. “

We need to convince employees and employers alike that it’s easier to teach job-specific hard skills and to hire for the soft skills that liberal arts grads honed in four, or more, years of college. These workers have mastered a broad array of subjects already. They are fearless learners, undaunted by a challenge. They’ll do the same in the workplace.

James Grunke is president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership. He writes a monthly column on local business issues.