Missoula’s 3.1% unemployment rate affects all businesses, industries

Missoula County had 1,682 more jobs in November compared to the same month in 2018.

That computes to an estimated 62,962 jobs that existed in Missoula County in November, compared to 61,280 in November 2018, according to a current Montana Office of Labor and Industry report.

Missoula has a 3.1% unemployment rate, compared to the 4% statewide.

“While I can’t speak to the difficulty that Missoula employers are having finding workers,” said spokeswoman Lauren Lewis, state public information officer, “3.1% unemployment rates are considered to be a tight labor market, where employers require more time and effort to fill job vacancies.”

Lewis said Missoula’s economic growth remains largely unaffected, but one grocery store manager said regular help is hard to find.  

Ronnie Harvie, Albertson’s store director at the Eastgate location, said he has at least four permanent openings now he’s struggling to fill.

“The unemployment rate is down,” said Harvie. “I can’t get anyone to apply for a job. We put signs on our doors to apply online. The problem is they want to make $19 an hour and work Monday through Friday, 8-5. The unemployment rate just seems BS.”

The minimum wage in Montana is $8.50 per hour. 

Missoula has four Albertson’s stores, and all seem very busy, especially during the holiday season. But Harvie stressed that he’s looking for permanent, not temporary help.

“We usually don’t do any temporary hiring; we usually have enough staff where we can carry it through,” he added. “We don’t need the extra holiday help. We just need help, period.”

In general, Lewis said low unemployment can be a detriment to employers.

“Low unemployment rates can have the downside of slowing business output due to the increased time it takes to find workers to fill vacancies or newly created jobs,” said Lewis. “However, the data shows that Missoula has added almost 1,700 jobs compared to last November, which suggests that the low unemployment rates are not impeding growth at this time.”

Hiring temporary holiday help at Barnes and Noble on N. Reserve St. has not been a problem this year, said Manager Stephanie Wodarz.

“We are good to go,” said Wodarz. “People want to work here. It’s a good place to work.”

She said she has fewer than 10 temporary holiday employees to handle the hustle and bustle of busy holiday shoppers in the popular bookstore.

“We have no problem filling positions,” Wodarz added. “Every position we’ve needed, we filled.”

Lewis said unemployment rates this low affect worker supply across the entire job market, as all industries are affected. A greater number of available jobs combined with lower unemployment gives job seekers the advantage in negotiating for wages and benefits. 

“Low unemployment rates benefit workers by putting them in a position to negotiate wage increase with their employers, so this can be good by increasing the pay and benefits that workers are receiving,” said Lewis.

For employers, the downside is “slowing business output” since it takes longer to find workers to fill vacancies or newly created jobs. The state does not provide data detailing the number of temporary holiday jobs left open. 

“Statewide, the unemployment rate has been low for quite some time now, being under 4% since September 2017,” said Lewis. “Over the past year, it has declined. In November 2018, the unemployment rate was 3.7%, or 0.3% higher than it currently sits.”

The latest state data, released monthly, shows Missoula County’s unemployment rate was the 24th lowest in the state for November, and at 3.1% is only .1% lower than it was at the same time last year.

Contract Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com.