Montana's recovery from recession is complete, but workers needed

2014-05-25T00:00:00Z 2014-05-26T00:19:04Z Montana's recovery from recession is complete, but workers neededBy ERIK OLSON The Billings Gazette
May 25, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Fueled by job growth around the Bakken oil fields, Montana has fully recovered from the lingering recession, reaching employment levels not seen in five years, according to a state economist.

But businesses desperately need new workers to meet growing demand and replace retirees, or they will struggle to grow, said Barbara Wagner, chief economist of the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. Montana gained about 10,000 jobs in the first four months of 2014, equal to the total job gains in both 2012 and 2013.

“For Montana, and the United States as a whole, we have a huge baby boomer population that is retiring, and there is not enough workers, or enough people period, to replace the baby boomers,” Wagner said.

“It’s pretty hard to run your business when you can’t find workers. ... People lose money in their business when they can’t find workers,” she said last week.

In April, the most recent data available, Montana’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.8 percent, the lowest in more than five years. The last time the state’s jobless rate fell below 5 percent was August 2008, just as the recession began strangling the economy nationwide.

The state lost about 30,000 jobs from 2008 to 2010, largely because of slowdowns in construction, the collapse of the housing market and cutbacks in the timber industry. It took four years for statewide employment levels to come back, largely because of the Bakken boom and related service jobs that have popped up in Eastern Montana, Wagner said.

The Bakken is lifting all areas of the state because the high-paying oil industry jobs are attracting workers to move from other parts of Montana, Wagner said.

The unemployment rate is the most common barometer of economic health in the region. In Montana, the unemployment rate peaked at nearly 7 percent in 2010.

Yellowstone County’s unemployment rate in April was 3.2 percent.

Wagner said she expects total jobs statewide to grow 1.7 percent in 2014 and 2015, with the health care industry leading the way. Wages are also continuing to grow about 1 percent faster than inflation each year, giving workers more purchasing power for groceries, gasoline and other goods, she said.

“Montana’s economy is doing very well,” she said.

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