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Industry Experts Talk About Challenges, Opportunities To Address Montana’s Labor Shortage

A panel at the BBER Economic Outlook seminar in Bozeman discusses challenges and opportunities to attract more skilled labor, February 5, 2020.
Rachel Cramer
Yellowstone Public Radio
A panel at the BBER Economic Outlook seminar in Bozeman discusses challenges and opportunities to attract more skilled labor, February 5, 2020.

Many Montana companies are struggling to find suitable workers to fill job openings. Researchers and industry experts at a seminar in Bozeman Wednesday say there aren’t enough skilled applicants. But educators say they see opportunities in more apprenticeships.

Patrick Barkey, research director with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, says the labor shortage in Montana will likely become more pronounced as baby boomers retire.

“The most dramatic thing you’re going to see in the workforce in the coming years and we’re already seeing it is every workforce in America and Montana is going to have a higher fraction of older workers,” Barkey says.

But he says there’s more going on than just a demographic shift.

“It has to do with skills and how the economy has evolved,” Barkey says.

Over a quarter of Montana’s manufacturing companies said they had worker shortages last year in a BBER study. The biggest factor was not enough qualified applicants.

During a panel discussion, Tom Alexander with NorthWestern Energy says the utility industry is facing a similar challenge. He says part of it has to do with competitive salaries in other states.

“One of the things we have seen recently right here in Gallatin County is the number of lineman who are heading to California with all the fires. They are paying those folks $300,000 to $400,000 a year,” Alexander says.

In comparison, NorthWestern is currently offering roughly $94,000 for a journeyman lineman position in Bozeman. Alexander said it took a year to fill a similar position in the micropolitan area. He says the lack of affordable housing also deters some qualified candidates.

Another issue is perception and stigma.

“You know, people don’t look at lineman really as a career, and so it’s not talked about in the schools. So we’re trying to get back in the schools and the junior highs to have conversations about careers in utilities,” Alexander says.

Stephanie Gray, Dean of Gallatin College MSU, says several of the high schools in the county are looking to develop apprenticeships with utility and manufacturing companies.

“It’s important for a high school student to get quality, hands-on experience in these jobs,” Gray says.

She says Gallatin College has developed more one year programs over the last decade to help people enter the job market more quickly.

“If we can help them learn how to problem solve and figure out how to fix something, then they can go into these jobs and at least have the foundational experience and little bit of confidence so they can go and continue to develop while they’re on the job,” Gray says.

BBER recently held seminars addressing regional economies in Helena, Great Falls, Missoula and Billings. The next summits are in Butte, Kalispell, Havre, Lewistown and Big Sky.