Tight unemployment rate vexing Missoula businesses

Missoula’s 3.7 percent unemployment rate has made it challenging to find skilled employees in a number of businesses across several different industries. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Missoula’s low unemployment rate has left businesses in a pinch, unable to find enough workers to keep pace with growth or match the pay offered by competing businesses, a local workforce expert said.

The Montana Department of Labor and Industry last week released the latest employment figures for counties across the state. Missoula ranked 21st with its 3.7 percent unemployment rate – a dangerously low figure.

“It’s pretty tight,” said Wolf Ametsbichler, manager of the Missoula Job Service. “We’re hearing a lot of employers say they can’t find suitable people.”

Ametsbichler said the shortage runs across a number of occupations and industries, including skilled trades like construction workers and tech companies needing computer programmers.

While it’s a welcome turnaround from the height of the recession when Missoula workers couldn’t find jobs, Ametsbichler said, it has made it difficult for today’s employers to fill their rosters.

Businesses have been forced to raise their wages and find new ways to recruit workers, he said.

“There aren’t that many minimum wage jobs in Missoula anymore,” Ametsbichler said. “You’re seeing a general trend of wages going up.”

But not all employers are in a position to raise wages, he said. The increased competition has placed some at a disadvantage, including Opportunity Resources, the YWCA and Missoula Developmental Services Corporation.

“Those employers who are locked into certain reimbursement rates for childcare or Medicaid, they’re hard pressed to pay more because they’re not getting more on the revenue side,” Ametsbichler said. “Those businesses that can’t pass on a wage increase are really stressed.”

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s quarterly census of employment and wages, the annual average wage in Missoula County is currently $38,709. The state average is currently $40,245.

Low wages in Missoula has been a source of discussion over the past few months, occupying the keynote address at several economic forums, including the Missoula Economic Partnership investors’ breakfast and last week’s presentation on the state’s economic outlook.

According to Bryce Ward, associate director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, a college-educated worker in Missoula earns just 63 percent of the nation’s median earnings.

At any time, Ametsbichler added, the local job service has 600 to 900 jobs open. Finding workers to replace retiring baby boomers is expected to strain local businesses even further in the coming years.

“We’re advising employers to invest a little more in training on the job, and we provide labor market information to ensure their wages are competitive,” said Ametsbichler. “Because you have seasonal layoffs right now, which will be over in March, it’s going be very tight.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com