(KPAX) A University of Montana economist said the state's employment growth “fell of a cliff” in 2020, largely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM, said Montana saw a drop in employment growth of 3.5% last year.

"Mind you, that is a combination of double-digit declines in the spring, followed by yearly double-digit increases in the fall. What do we expect in the future? Well we expect there to be a pretty strong bounce back,” Barkey said at UM's 46th annual economic outlook seminar, held virtually this year.

This year’s focus is on the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it has and will have on the Treasure State’s economy.

Barkey says that as the vaccine becomes more widespread and things transition back to normal, employment will surge across the state. He noted that wages and salaries grew at almost the same rate in 2020 as they did in 2019.

“That is amazing and very surprising. No one expected that. That is a combination of many things. It is the types of jobs that were lost, which were on the lower end paying part of the spectrum. There were new jobs being created. Finally, a lot of Montanans are making more money and working more hours,” said Barkey.

Barkey noted that fuel demand will continue to slump with decreased travel, which will likely hamper oil and gas production across the region.

"There's really not much hope for oil to be moving ahead quite rapidly," he said.

Patrick Barkey
Patrick Barkey

As for unemployment, women started taking the largest hit in mid-2020. Barkey says that women accounted for roughly 20% of unemployment claims in February of 2019 but that number rose to 60% in April and May of 2020.

Barkey said those numbers started to normalize towards the end of 2020 and into today but are still at historical highs. With the various job sectors in Montana, some have seen a larger gap for jobs lost from the last three months of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020.

Barkey said the lodging and food sector experienced a loss of over 14,000 jobs over that same period. Retail job losses were just over 4,000, and healthcare was over 3,000. meanwhile, the mining sector lost less than 1,000 jobs in that time.

Barkey says that he predicts that in 2021 Montana will experience a growth rebound. After the rebound, there will be a dip and then consistent growth soon after.