Montana had an eventful 2017. From two legislative sessions to an historic fire season, it was a noteworthy year for the Treasure State and businesses. Today, the Montana business community has reason to be cautiously optimistic, given some recent achievements and unfinished business looking ahead.

The Montana Chamber of Commerce launched Envision 2026, our 10-year strategic plan for Montana’s future. Envision 2026 is guided by four primary goals – workforce, entrepreneurship, business and infrastructure – and we’re using key metrics to guide and measure our progress. We will improve Montana relative to other states in:

• Gross State Product growth;

• two-year job growth;

• and per capita income;

• both levels and growth.

Workforce is a critical issue we face in 2018. The most common sign we see in storefronts around the state is not “Open” or “Closed”, it’s “Help Wanted.” We’ll continue connecting employers, education and workforce training professionals to yield a better future pipeline.

This is not to say we are not on the right track today.

Over the final quarter of 2017, more than 1,400 jobs were added in Montana and the state’s unemployment rate is at 4 percent. While sheer number of workers is important, another major factor of workforce development is to emphasize and enhance needed job skills. We find skill sets, certificates and apprenticeships matter more to many employers than some college degrees. We pushed and passed an apprenticeship tax credit during the 2017 legislative session that we’re hoping – and seeing – employers use.

That doesn’t mean we don’t need college degrees – to the contrary. We are seeing higher education incorporating career success and job placement as a much greater role in their mission. We applaud and support that.

Entrepreneurship remains a bright spot in Montana – even if not so shiny in 2017. In the ranking of states by the Kauffman Foundation, where Montana dominated the top spot for three years, we dropped to the No. 4 spot. Granted, it was by a tiny margin behind the top three. To continue fostering the entrepreneurial spirit in Montana, our entrepreneurship grant and “Make Montana Home” campaign will wrap up in 2018 to ensure we continue seeing growth.

Taxes were the talk of Helena before the regular session, and intensified in the aftermath of the November special session. The Montana Chamber played its part this spring by advancing state tax reform, while at the same time preventing job-killing individual and corporate rate hikes.

The necessity of the special session to address fiscal shortfalls begs a larger question, “Is Montana’s current tax structure best for the new economy?”

In 2017, the Montana Chamber undertook a major tax analysis of our state. The State Tax Research Institute is conducting this research to answer that question in 2018. We’re also coupling revenue restructuring with controlling spending.

The legal climate is also a critical component of business climate. The Institute for Legal Reform ranks the fairness of state court systems, and last fall, announced Montana moved up to 27th, an improvement from 45th in 2012. While this indicates significant progress, we still strive for a top-10 spot.

The final objective of Envision 2026 deals with infrastructure. In 2018 and beyond, the Montana Infrastructure Coalition will continue to promote greater investment, including at the federal level. As part of that promotion, watch for major activity around national Infrastructure Week on May 14-21.

Outside the legislative arena, one of my personal initiatives – ever since my days in the logging business – is workplace safety. Unfortunately, too many workers in Montana suffer at too high a cost. These workers are our friends and family. As employers, we must do better to send everyone home at the end of the day as good or better than they showed up.

There is a lot of optimism in the businesses community, in large part, to the recently-passed federal tax reform package. In 2018, nearly $800 million will stay in the pockets of Montana residents to recirculate into the economy, and the new law encourages business investment in our state.

While we had a good 2017, we’re looking forward to a great 2018.

In eastern Montana, oil activity is up again. And after the recent cold snap on the East Coast, a lot of folks aren’t quite so ready to give up on old reliable coal. Agriculture may take longer to come back out of the doldrums, especially wheat prices. Let’s work to get a farm bill passed in 2018.

Tourism and outdoor recreation should see a good year in 2018 – gas prices are stable, and we’ve had a good snowpack already this winter.

We see a resurgence in construction (both residential and commercial) in many parts of the state. We’re also seeing technology companies popping up like crazy.

We’re all in this together. Your success is our success. and our success is your success. Together we can create a greater Montana – in 2018, and beyond.

Webb Scott Brown is the Montana Chamber of Commerce’s president/CEO. Brown has been with the Montana Chamber for 19 years.