City agrees to help fund workforce study with MEP

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

At the urging of the mayor, members of the Missoula City Council this week agreed to contribute $12,500 to a workforce study to determine the needs of area businesses and how to fill training gaps in the jobs sector.

Spearheaded by the Missoula Economic Partnership, the study carries a cost of $62,000 and includes equal contributions from Missoula County and MEP. The organization also secured a $25,000 planning grant from the state.

“Our portion of funding this program seems reasonable to me,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “As we begin to march down the path of understanding our housing needs in the community, I think workforce development, economic development and housing stock go hand in hand.”

Over the past year, local government and economic leaders have buckled down to find solutions to housing across the city, including its rising costs and what sort of housing stock is needed to better fit area wages.

That study is being headed by the Missoula Organization of Realtors. And while the workforce study represents a separate effort headed by MEP, it goes hand in hand with the housing study, according to James Grunke, the organization’s president and CEO.

“We cannot separate obtainable housing and workforce from the pressing needs of an economic development strategy,” said Grunke. “We began talking about this almost a year ago when I began meeting with area employers and they told me their biggest barrier to economic growth was access to workforce.”

To help fund the workforce study, MEP landed a $25,000 grant from the Montana Department of Commerce and contracted Thomas P. Miller & Associates to perform the work.

The same consultant completed a similar study in Billings two years ago.

“We’ll come back together with all of these findings and results to put together a strategic plan to address workforce development in Missoula,” said Nichole Rush, the grants manager at MEP. “I think the Billings report is a pretty good indicator of what we’re going to get in the end.”

While members of the council were largely supportive of the effort, passing it on a 10-1 vote, several underlying questions emerged from Wednesday’smeeting. Ward 6 council member Michelle Cares voted against the measure.

She said the city provides MEP with $100,000 a year to perform the function of its mission and suggested the organization use 12.5 percent of that contribution to help fund the workforce study.

“Why did the Montana Chamber contribute to the Billings report but not ours?” she asked. “Could we use the primary findings from the Billings report to guide our work? I wonder about MEP’s outreach to the private sector and the roughly 73 percent of their budget on overhead.”

Supporters of the study contend that Billings and Missoula are separate cities with different workforce needs and different employers. Grunke and Engen both said they hear regularly from local businesses who cite a need for skilled workers.

“To the degree that we can all be pulling in generally the same direction with workforce development and training, and trying to understand how those institutions, city government and business can work together to ensure not only a supply of quality trained workers, but to anticipate how we’d want to retool in the future, would be significant,” Engen said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com