As Missoula builds its reputation as a high-tech hub for Montana, the push to find quality talent is also increasing.

Part of that effort comes courtesy of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance and its publication of a list of Montana's Top Tech Employers. The list includes 25 companies that focus on services like engineering, software, consulting, information technology and retail.

Christina Henderson, executive director of the Alliance, said these companies meet specific criteria to be on the list. They’re a good place to start, she said, for those seeking tech jobs in Montana.

“These tend to be our larger anchor companies – ones that are doing a lot of hiring, tend to have 20 or more employees, and have plans to grow,” she said. “In many cases, they’ve been around for decades and they’re also really actively engaged in the community.”

According to Henderson, the tech industry is growing at a rate nine times the overall Montana economy and is expected to add nearly 1,200 new jobs this year that pay twice the median wage.

In 2017, the industry produced about $1.7 million of revenue in the state.

“The vast majority of these companies, 99 percent of their customer base is outside the state of Montana,” she said. “So they’re selling products and services all over the globe and that money is coming back into the state of Montana in taxes, payroll and in local investment.”

Christina Henderson
Christina Henderson

With companies planting offices in Montana and downtown Missoula, finding trained and talented employees is a challenge.

In a report published this year by Garner Economics on behalf of the Missoula Economic Partnership, focus group participants suggested that businesses and industries that protect the area’s natural beauty are a good fit for Missoula.

One of the most frequently suggested industries was the high-tech/high-growth sector.

“These out-of-state companies see Montana and Missoula as great places to do business and are planting offices here,” Henderson said. “We have an incredible quality of life and an excellent workforce. When we survey companies, those are the top two advantages to doing business.”

The list provides profiles of its 25 employers, including Edulog, ATG, Blackfoot, WGM Group and others. Among the criteria: The firms must employ 20 or more workers, plan to grow in Montana, are consistently hiring and are involved in the community.

ATG, or Advanced Technology Group, started in 2001, opening its Missoula Solutions Center on Main Street in 2011. The company works with Fortune 1000 companies like Subaru, 24-hour Fitness and Centurylink.

ATG offers services in customer care, billing and CRM, which allows companies to manage business-customer transactions and data.

“We help our clients understand what kind of software they need to be able to do that, and to optimize their processes and their organization to be able to support the technology, and then we implement the technology,” said Tom Stergios, senior vice president of strategy and corporate development at ATG and the head of the Missoula Solution Center.

Increasing their workforce from two employees eight years ago to about 140 today, the company plans to keep growing.

Traditions have already developed.

Tom Stergios
Tom Stergios

When ATG's Missoula office closes out the work week on Friday afternoons, the employees drink local brews and give “shout-outs” to their peers, acknowledging their hard work and dedication throughout the past week. They appreciate the janitor's early morning routine and talk about the new interns and the projects they've been working on.

The week’s “rock star” gets a silver painted can, accented with a red star, which can be passed on to a coworker the next week.

With the company's growth, Stergios intends to move the office to the Old Sawmill District, serving as the development’s first major business – and a major step for ATG.

In 2017, the company created 200 additional jobs and created an economic output of $21.8 million, according to a report by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Allowing tech businesses to grow in Montana is critical if the state wants to retain students who graduate from its universities with tech degrees. ATG provides internships for high school and college students.

“When you graduate with a U of M degree in computer science or MIS, there are very few good jobs in that field,” Stergios said. “We export them to Seattle and that’s probably the worst thing that has happened to us. This allows us to hire Montanans, and 96 of our employees come from the University of Montana.”

Along with their growing development, ATG is also known for their community stewardship.

Employees participate in the University of Montana Science Opportunities for Kids program, or SOKS, an afterschool program for fourth- and fifth-graders at Bonner, Franklin and Lolo schools where kids take apart laptops and learn about things like prosthetics. Employees also help clean up the Clark Fork River each spring and implement software for the Missoula Food Bank Network.

“We’re still kind of a smaller town company. It’s so important to give back to that community and grow that community with you so that you can share that success in the surrounding area,” said Kayleigh Blair, a member of the ATG philanthropy group.

Blackfoot, another tech company that made the list, has been developing in Montana for 60 years, starting as a telephone company in the Blackfoot Valley.

Years later, the company delivers telecommunications to businesses, schools and rural areas in Montana and Idaho, employing 177 people in Montana and 190 in total.

Laura Marshall, Blackfoot’s vice president of human resources and community relations, said the company connects even the most remote places in Montana.

“Think about how easy it is for a provider in Seattle to provide internet service in an apartment building where there’s thirteen floors and there’s one connection point and then to each apartment,” she said. “Here in Montana, we have to connect those farmers and ranchers, those folks who choose to live farther out. We want everybody in America to be connected. That’s what Blackfoot does.”

The company just signed up to start employing students through Missoula College’s new IT apprenticeship program and has launched the region’s first open innovation lab called C2M beta aimed to give startup companies business, technical and project support.

Companies like Missoula-based Audience Awards and Front Street Capital Management Inc. are partnering with Blackfoot for this year’s C2M beta group.

Jason Williams is CEO of Blackfoot, a communications company based in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Jason Williams is CEO of Blackfoot, a communications company based in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“It’s a really neat thing where we can bring in a growing, sometimes small company that is looking for some operational support, marketing support and sales support that we have internally here,” said Blackfoot marketing manager Wil Anderson. “Why can’t we help our business community members to give them that support, to give them that expertise and to help them grow their company?”

Along with the new lab, Blackfoot also offers free classes and information sessions to cooperative members in places like Alberton, Arlee, Drummond, Missoula and others.

While companies like ATG aim to educate the younger generation, Blackfoot’s target audiences are “young at heart” tech users who want to learn more about computers and cybersecurity.

“It’s not just getting the kids into tech, it’s keeping those who may not be used to tech and keeping them current so they can connect with grandkids or whoever that might be,” Marshall said.

While Missoula tech companies are leaving their mark either in community involvement or in state revenue, Henderson is excited to see the tech industry grow and for workers to move into the state.

“It’s really exciting to see this kind of convergence of tech opening new doors, and because [Missoula is] such an incredible place to live, and people can live anywhere, they’re going to choose places like Missoula,” Henderson said.