Help wanted: Billings-area businesses struggling to hire, keep workers

2014-08-03T00:00:00Z 2014-08-18T14:19:19Z Help wanted: Billings-area businesses struggling to hire, keep workersBy ERIK OLSON The Billings Gazette

Stacey Ronquillo is down to one part-time employee at his Billings lawn care business this summer, and it’s costing him precious work.

A nine-year employee found a better job, and the normal three-man crew is gone. Possible replacements either had spotty driving records or required too much training on the machinery, Ronquillo said.

He’s turned down three jobs in the last few weeks because he doesn’t have the manpower.

The right employees, he said, are hard to find.

“They’re not out there. They’re just not,” said Ronquillo, 46, who’s owned Ameriscape for the past 20 years.

Call it the flip side of the Bakken boom.

The North Dakota oil fields — and the promise of big paychecks — have lured hundreds of workers away from the Yellowstone Valley, leaving Ronquillo and other businesses struggling to compete. Montana wages have also been traditionally low compared to other states, creating a “brain drain” of skilled talent, state officials say.

In Montana, worker shortages, particularly in the service sector, are putting the brakes on an otherwise fast-moving economy. The business television network CNBC recently ranked Montana as the 33rd top state for business, just barely ahead of Alabama, largely because of a workforce shortage.

This low ranking was despite a low unemployment rate — 4.5 percent in June, 10th-lowest nationwide — and big jobs gains, 11,000 since the beginning of the year.

Economists have been warning that businesses can’t maintain this fast pace of job growth with a shallow labor pool. Worker shortage was a major theme two months ago in Billings at a roundtable discussion among business owners with U.S. Sen. John Walsh. Gov. Steve Bullock has also identified worker shortage as a top priority in his Main Street Montana plan to improve the economy.

Without workers, businesses can’t meet demand and will look to expand in other areas, experts say. But it’s also a chance for private industry to reach out to state institutions, particularly two-year community colleges, to beef up training geared to what Montana employers need.

“It was the number-one issue — and opportunity — spotted by Montana’s business community,” said Pam Bucy, commissioner of the state’s labor and industries department.

Last month, the state received a $5.125 million federal grant to increase apprenticeship and worker training programs, designed to retrain long-term, unemployed Montanans.

Improved training will help, but private employers must also find ways to improve pay or watch skilled workers continue to stream out of state, Bucy said.

“There’s definitely a skills gap… You couple that with the fact that we’re 39th (nationwide) in wages… it absolutely exacerbates that skills gap problem,” she said.

Workers’ advantage

In Billings, the fast-food industry is even struggling to compete for low-cost labor.

Instead of highlighting deals on burritos or nachos on their high-profile reader boards, the four Taco Bells in Billings are advertising what pay they’re offering.

The restaurants have boosted pay for new employees from $8.50 to $9 an hour, with scheduled additional hikes to keep workers, said Alisha Burke, general manager of the Grand Avenue Taco Bell. Montana’s minimum wage is $7.90 per hour.

The plan also includes pay hikes for current employees and supervisors, Burke said. In Billings, employee turnover is the highest in the state for the owners, TLC Restaurants, who also own Taco Bells in Great Falls, Bozeman and Belgrade, Burke said.

“We just want to get better people in by hiring at the higher wage. We think they stay because of the atmosphere,” she said.

The Bakken boom has hurt the Billings restaurants, but Burke said Taco Bell was also losing employees to other fast-food restaurants in town. Burke, who’s worked for the company 18 years, said customers appreciate service from employees who have experience and are happy to be there.

That’s required an attitude change from management, which is placing greater value on employee satisfaction, Burke said.

“Our company is completely focused on the way that we treat people. Our employees are our number-one customer,” she said.

For skilled trade workers in Yellowstone, the Bakken jobs have not lured away too many union workers because the oil fields offer smaller, if any, benefit package, area union officials said.

Locally, electricians and pipe fitters are in high demand during the busy construction season, said Darrell Johnson, president of the Greater Yellowstone Area Central Labor Council. And while unions have been keeping up with demand for labor so far, Johnson said they need to bring in new members too.

“If you want to keep good people here, you train them,” he said.

The May hailstorms also generated a lot of work for roofers and contractors, who have turned to local temp agencies to hire help.

“The demand is definitely high. We are very busy,” Staci Miner, office manager of Billings-based Advanced Employment Services, said.

Priced out of business?

Ronquillo said he’s tried to do right for his employees, paying $14 to $15 hourly, but he’s struggling to keep going.

He survives with three regular commercial lawn care projects at Billings Clinic, Rimrock Mall and Hunter’s Pointe Apartments on Central Avenue. But with costs rising, he said he’s considering getting a real-estate license and scaling back Ameriscape, maybe stopping altogether.

He said he has less time to train people on his $15,000 mowers, especially if he’s uncertain how long they will stay.

“To find those guys anymore is tough,” Ronquillo said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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