A few weeks ago, a constituent of mine in the University District who recently relocated from New York City told me that he had a harder time finding a contractor, and it cost more for the remodel on his house, here than it would have in New York. 

Here in little old Missoula, Montana?

Well, it all relates back to the core issue of workforce development in the trades, which is one of the factors (of which there are many) that contribute to our affordable housing crisis. Following presentations to City Council by the Department of Labor, several unions and several contractors regarding the value of incorporating registered apprentices on public works projects, City Councilor Heather Harp and I took up this issue.  

Heather and I worked on this issue for almost a year and had several listening sessions with many contractors. While some contractors are utilizing the state’s registered apprenticeship programs, for various reasons many are not. Many contractors are so busy they are just trying to make it day to day, week by week, with little time to strategize for the future.

In addition, Missoula College has been through a period of reinvention for the last several years, and is just now starting to pivot toward the future with a comprehensive plan to teach the trades. Also, Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) recently hired a full-time apprenticeship coordinator (for not only the trades, but also other occupations) and would like to engage more. 

The hope is to create more communication and networking in Missoula between these entities regarding workforce recruitment. Some of the bigger contractors in Missoula have their own in-house registered apprentice programs, but many other contractors do not and train new workers on an as-needed basis. 

On Monday night, June 17, the Missoula City Council passed a resolution that addresses workforce shortages in the trades. Specifically, any public investment infrastructure projects done by the city that will cost $500,000 or more will have an incentive for contractors with registered apprentices. Contractors who demonstrate that 10 percent of the workforce they will put on the job are registered apprentices will receive a 5 percent bid preference. This means they bid the job, but their bid is considered to be lowered by 5 percent in order to be more competitive, yet they will get paid the full bid amount. 

This bidding preference incentivizes contractors to engage with the Montana Department of Labor to start their own registered apprentice program within their company. However, if no bids from contractors with registered apprentices are received, the bidding process proceeds per the usual and the job is awarded.

Our resolution is a small step forward to address the workforce shortage. Montana, like the rest of the country, is experiencing a severe workforce shortage in the trades.  This has come about for various reasons, including demographics as the older generation retires, the 2008 recession which forced many out of the trades due to lack of work and those workers never returned, and a cultural shift among young people, including wanting to make an impact on the world, seeking employment in the tech sector and not wanting to get dirty on the job. The bottom line is that, as our older generation retires from the trades, we are already woefully behind in filling those slots – and it will only get worse.

Yet as a city councilor, I consistently hear the refrain that Missoulians need better-paying jobs with health insurance and retirement benefits. Working in the trades as a registered apprentice is an excellent career path to eventually have a good-paying job with benefits sufficient to support a family and buy a house in Missoula (hallelujah!)  Hard work? Absolutely, but worth it and it provides workers with an honest and substantive way to earn a living.

Working as a registered apprentice means receiving excellent training from the bottom up, promoting comprehensive safety training, and finally it results in no student loans since you earn as you learn.  Also, if a worker completes a registered apprenticeship, their experience and seniority will be recognized and rewarded in other states. Nowadays, most people relocate several times during their lifetime, and as a registered apprentice, their earnings in a new community will reflect their experience and training. 

The resolution passed by the City Council in no way completely solves this problem, but is a small nudge to incentivize contractors to recruit people into the trades, and to do it in a safety oriented, structured way that benefits both employer and employee. Government has limited tools, but this is a small step in the right direction.

The much bigger conversation is to engage our community of Missoula in acknowledging the lack of workforce and to work together to address it. It means talking to our youth and educating them on the benefits of going into the trades, and working with MCPS and Missoula College to connect, communicate with, and recruit kids to pursue these careers. Additionally, Missoula Economic Partnership is taking an active role in facilitating communication on this issue, as the lack of workforce in the trades impacts Missoula’s business development in general.  If Missoula has a coordinated effort on all fronts to promote workforce recruitment, our community will be better off. 

Gwen Jones is a Ward 3 city councilor for the city of Missoula.


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