Missoula’s low unemployment rate leaves businesses scrambling to fill empty jobs

Missoula’s low unemployment rate has left businesses across the city scrambling to fill vacant jobs. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula’s tight labor market has grown even tighter this summer, with unemployment dipping to a scant 3.1 percent, resulting in “help wanted” signs posted across the city.

Combined with the annual exodus of the city’s college crowd, the low figure has created a smaller labor pool, making it hard for many employers to fill vacant jobs.

“It’s extremely tough to find people who are qualified,” said Wolf Ametsbichler, manager of the Missoula Job Service. “The seasonal hiring soaks up a lot of additional people and a lot of students have left town, so the labor pool has gotten a little smaller and we get a lot of inquiries from employers who can’t fill jobs.”

Statewide, the unemployment rate hovers at around 3.9 percent, though in Missoula it has trended downward over the past year. The local Job Service had roughly 600 positions open last month.

Ametsbichler said Monday that the vacancies vary from skilled positions to seasonal workers, including those in landscaping and construction. That has forced some employers to compete for workers – a complete reversal from the recession years, when employers held the upper hand.

“You’re seeing upward pressure on the wages,” Ametsbichler said. “Employers have to adjust their expectations as well, and do more to be competitive in the market.”

James Grunke, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said the labor shortage has been an issue in Missoula for the past several years, with employers often saying they can’t find workers.

At the same time, he said, local workers often lament that Missoula has “no good jobs.”

Citing a disconnect, MEP commissioned a workforce study earlier this year through Thomas Miller & Associates to look at the local labor market. The results are expected this summer and will enable MEP to write a strategic plan geared toward workforce development.

“We’re having a meeting with consultants on Wednesday to review their preliminary findings,” Grunke said. “Hopefully it’s got some concrete steps, or course of action. We’ve got to have a strategy, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Ametsbichler agreed, saying the Missoula Job Service looks to implement the study’s findings and move the needled on local employment. The job service is a strategic partner in the study.

“I’m looking for to-dos in a comprehensive way, so it’s not just a study that sits on the shelf, but becomes an action plan with deliverable results where community partners can work together on workforce issues,” Ametsbichler said.

Ametsbichler, who has worked with the Job Service for nearly 23 years, said Missoula has shifted from a timber economy to a technology-based employment center.

That evolution continues, he said, though the growing pains endure.

“It’s a total rejiggering from a wood-product economy and resource-based economy to a professional and modern economy, for lack of a better term,” he said. “We’re having explosive growth here. You see it in construction everywhere. This town has changed in a very fundamental way. It’s very healthy economically.”

Even so, Grunke said employers “across the board” are looking for workers. He said access to employees remains the number one issue brought to MEP.

“I went into Albertsons the other day and they had a whole list on the door of positions they’re looking for,” Grunke said. “It’s every industry.”