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Help wanted in Helena: Low unemployment rate leaves employers struggling to find workers

Help wanted in Helena: Low unemployment rate leaves employers struggling to find workers

A now hiring sign hangs outside the recently re-modeled Arby's

A "now hiring" sign hangs outside the recently remodeled Arby's restaurant on Montana Avenue. Lewis and Clark County has a lower unemployment rate than the state, with just 2.9 percent of job seekers in the county unemployed.

The signs are virtually everywhere in Helena: “Now Hiring,” “Help Wanted” and “Apply Inside.” If you look at an online job board, you will see hundreds of local job openings posted.

Montana, and Helena specifically, has had a shortage of workers for a few years now. More businesses, from retail to professional work, are posting help wanted ads to attract working people.

Montana’s economy has grown since the Great Recession of the late 2000s. Since then, the state has seen steady wage growth while the unemployment rate has dropped on a fairly consistent basis over the past several years.

This led to the situation today, when there are more jobs than warm bodies to fill them. 

Chris Bradley, an economist with Montana Department of Labor and Industry

Chris Bradley, an economist with Montana Department of Labor and Industry, said a lot of baby boomers are retiring and a lot of people are finding that there are fewer job seekers.

This is not a crisis and it’s not at all unexpected, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. Chris Bradley, an economist with the department, said economists saw this coming a long time ago.

Bradley explained that Montana has more people entering retirement than the job market.

“Economists' take on it is that it’s a demographics issue,” Bradley said. “A lot of baby boomers are retiring and a lot of people are finding that there are fewer job seekers.”

Montana's unemployment rate was 3.7 percent as of mid-November, and the department of labor expects it to go below 3 percent before 2025. By comparison, the unemployment rate is 2.7 percent in Idaho and 2.8 percent in North Dakota. 

Bradley said Montana's low unemployment rate results from the strength of its economic growth coupled with the diversity of its job economy, which helped the state weather the Great Recession better than other states. 

Lewis and Clark County has a lower unemployment rate than the state, with just 2.9 percent of job seekers unemployed. Bradley said this figure isn’t adjusted seasonally like the monthly statewide figure. The county rate typically stays below the state rate.

The trend of low unemployment and few job seekers is a statewide issue. Bradley said economists do see higher unemployment in rural areas and on reservations, but nothing too concerning.

“Only about 1.2 percent have been unemployed for 15 weeks or longer while seeking employment,” Bradley said.

He said recently unemployed workers, people between jobs, and people choosing their next job more carefully make up much of the unemployment figure. 

“Chances are, most of them will find a job soon,” Bradley said.

This trend of more workers out than in is expected to continue for around 10 more years. The labor department expects around 100,000 workers, around one-fifth of the total workforce, to be retired in the next 10 years. This coincides with the end of the baby boomer generation exiting the workforce.

Bradley said economists expect the labor market’s rotation to even out around this time. At that point, businesses will learn to adjust to the smaller labor market with fewer working-age individuals.

Terry Gauthier, owner of Helena’s two McDonald’s restaurants, said McDonald’s corporate has also studied the demographics of its customer base and workforce for some time.

Gauthier said McDonald’s is predicting the same trend.

“For every five people that are retiring, we only have two young people aging up to replace them,” Gauthier said. “The birth rate is the lowest it’s been for a long time. Families used to have five or six children and now families have one or two children, if any at all.”

This aging population paired with high economic growth has created a high demand for workers. However, this demand has also created a tight labor market that has resulted in higher wage growth for Montana families. Average wages continue to trend up, and when adjusted for inflation, real wage growth in 2017 was 1.1 percent. 

In the past six months, Helena Job Service has posted about 6,300 jobs from 580 area employers. About 2,500 of those postings were duplicates of previous postings, according to the labor department. This typically indicates the employer either didn’t find someone the first time or had turnover.

Note this doesn't include all jobs in the Helena area, as many positions are never posted with Job Service.

About 2,400 people used Job Service either in person or online during this six-month time frame. Around 760 received one-on-one staff assisted service in the office.

However, this doesn’t necessarily indicate the number of people who might have used the computers at Job Service, just the ones who required one-on-one help. Additionally, not everyone who uses Job Service is unemployed, as some could just be seeking a new job.

A majority of these job-seekers, around 52 percent, were women. Individuals under 25 years old made up the smallest age group, with just 12 percent seeking aid from Job Service.


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