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Bozeman’s Labor Force Blues

The Fastest Growing Micropolitan in the U.S. Faces Major Labor Shortage

The average person living in Bozeman cannot go a day without seeing a Help Wanted ad. Whether it is online, in a local paper, or even the ubiquitous “Help Wanted” signs posted in businesses themselves, Montana is at the height of its workforce shortage, and there is no end in sight.

The U.S. Census ranks Bozeman as the fastest growing “micropolitan” city in the country. Micropolitan is defined as a city with a population between 10,000 and 50,000– and Bozeman sits at 46,000 people.

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U.S Census places Bozeman as the fastest growing micropolitan.

Bozeman residents have witnessed an increase in commercial activity, and with each new opening, new employees need to be hired, which is something that is proving incredibly difficult for employers to find, because of Bozeman’s small population size.

One company that is trying desperately to hire is the Bozeman’s Lowe’s. They usually host hiring events twice a year, where they interview walk-in candidates and make job offers the day of. However, according to one Lowe’s employee, Emily Sulgrove, the number of hiring events have doubled in just the last three months.

In this video, Bridgett Zahniser reports about the labor shortage in Bozeman, MT.

“We usually do get a good amount of people, usually fifteen to twenty people come in. We only are typically able to keep on about seven or eight from these hiring events. They’ll come in, they’ll work a couple days- or they usually don’t even last through our orientation period- before they decide that it’s not for them or they want to try something different,” Sulgrove said.

Sulgrove added that over the summer “There was a record number of open positions, of I think like 57 open positions, just trying to restaff the store”

Seasonal Employment

Another such employer is the Hilton Garden Inn in Bozeman. Although the winter and spring seasons are usually slow, the hotel is currently hiring for all service positions in numerous departments, including housekeeping, front desk, shuttle driving, and banquets.

So I would get twenty applications, I would call all twenty applications, and maybe three or four people would call me back,” said Rika Evert, Front Office Manager of the hotel. “Of those three or four people that I set up an interview with, two of them will probably no show for the interview, and the other two will interview but will decline the position later on because they don’t want the position.”

The unemployment rate in Gallatin County as of February 2019 is 2.5 percent- significantly lower than the nation’s average unemployment rate, which sits at 3.8 percent, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry

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Montana county unemployment rates as of February 2019

According to the Montana Employment and Labor Force Projections, which releases a report annually, there has been a drop in the job growth in Montana, from 1.1% growth in 1990 to a 0.7% growth in 2017, mainly because there are not enough people to fill the jobs.

Employing Students

In addition, in Bozeman specifically, because it’s a university town, college students attending Montana State University make up a large part of the workforce. MSU has had increasing enrollment every year, and in 2018-19 reported 16,703 students. But the high number of available positions also means jobs are easy to find.

“We still require staff to run the hotel. We’re open 365 days a year 24/7, so we have to have that staff here in order to run the hotel, and a lot of college kids are in the mindset that is ‘well if I can’t get the time off then I’m just going to quit this job,’” said Evert.

In addition, breaks during school and between semesters is even more difficult to have adequate staff on hand.

“It’s very difficult being in a college town, because a lot of times we either get freshman coming in who realize that they don’t really have the time to do both homework and work, so they choose to do and focus on their college work, which is completely understandable. Or, we get the people that are seniors and graduate and move on to careers in their field,” said Sulgrove.

When asked what Evert thought the root of the issue may be, she mentioned a number of things: lack of affordable housing in Bozeman, the fact that the hotel requires employees to pass a drug test, or even potentially a generational difference in priorities.

Some establishments are so short staffed that they have been forced to reduce hours to accommodate not overworking staff they do have. This is not possible at the Hilton Garden Inn, however, as policy (at least at the front desk) is that there is someone on hand 24 hours. Because of this, some staff have to work entirely alone for shifts that would ideally have three front desk associates working. In the banquets department, the number of available employees is only two-thirds of the amount that would be ideal.

Many businesses offer incentives to attract potential employees, including competitive pay, flexible schedules, and full benefits- but these perks are not always effective.

“We have thought about doing incentives, as if you work here for six months, you would receive a bonus at that point, but most of our workforce doesn’t last six months,” said Evert.

Impact of Housing Issues

The lack of workers is likely due to several reasons: at the very least, the increased cost of living in Montana, especially in southwestern Montana. The Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce points to a lack of affordable housing. Their website states “As home prices and rental rates have increased, it has become more difficult for some Bozeman residents to live in our community. Likewise, this same issue has made it difficult for businesses to find or recruit new employees because they can’t afford to live here.”  This dissuades local Montanans from moving to and working in areas with increased demand for a workforce.

“Housing prices in Bozeman and the cost of living is so high- to start these industry jobs at a normal rate of twelve dollars an hour, which is a higher rate than what is for minimum wage- is still not a feasible rate to live off in Bozeman when you’re renting a two bedroom for $1400 a month plus utilities,” said Evert, who has lived in Bozeman for fifteen years.

Another reason is that a big part of Montana’s economy is money made in the tourism industry. The Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, based at the University of Montana, estimates that in 2018 alone, non-resident visitors spent approximately 3.7 billion dollars. With skiing in the winter and a plethora of outdoor activities in the summer, including several national parks, it is no wonder that Montana is so tourist-friendly.

However, while tourists strengthen the economy, businesses that are in the hospitality industry still rely on Montana-based workers, and while vacationing in Montana is becoming more popular, the workforce still hasn’t caught up to the demand of supporting this industry.

Using a formula curated with average income for a family of four, the Chamber of Commerce found that as of April 2018, there were only 115 “affordable” homes in Bozeman. While there is no easy or quick solution, the Commerce suggests expanding the building of affordable homes as well as increasing transportation avenues for financially stressed citizens.

No Easy Solutions

The lack of workers in Bozeman has never been a more prominent issue. With new businesses opening to accommodate the growth in Montana, unemployment and available workers are at an all-time low. While businesses are trying to solve the issue by offering incentives, the establishments, as well as their current employees, are feeling the strain. Whether or not the problem will solve itself with an ever-increasing population is difficult to say, but the problem does not currently have an easy solution.

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