The Billings job market is as tight as it’s been in six years and employers are getting creative to land the right employees.
Unemployment in November hit 3.5 percent in Yellowstone County, a level not seen since 2007, according to Billings Job Service. Montana's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 5.2 percent. Local employers say qualified workers are extremely hard to come by and increased pay and other incentives are being offered to sweeten the pot.
At United Parcel Service, where holiday shipping has big brown delivery trucks rumbling well into the night, UPS is offering to pick up seasonal workers hired to run packages to doorsteps.
“I can tell you we’re finding it very difficult to find the high-quality applicants in Billings due to competition,” said Anthony Nelson, a UPS hiring manager responsible for the Billings area. “We have opportunities in a seasonal capacity as driver helpers. We’re also looking to increase our staff inside the building to load up cars or trailers. It’s been challenging finding interested, qualified applicants.”
UPS work isn’t for everyone. The company refers to its warehouse workers as “industrial athletes,” who are in a constant hustle as they move packages. Nelson said workers are expected to stretch their muscles and stay hydrated. Delivery helpers run packages to doorsteps during the busy holiday season. The company begins building up its labor force in October so workers are well prepared when the holiday crush hits in November.
Worker demand is stable or increasing in most local economic sectors, according to state labor statistics. Construction activity is steadily increasing, driving up demand for laborers with building experience. Permitted construction values for Billings are $1 million ahead of 2012. Employers are also feeling pressure from the Bakken oilfield on the Montana-North Dakota border.
“We feel some affect from the oilfield, but the building industry is going so well right now that a lot of the carpenters and framing crews need people, too. And we are all after that same body of people,” said Darrin Reid, of Thomae Truss.
Thomae builds trusses for building projects from Wolf Point and North Dakota to Wyoming. Billings construction is what keeps the company’s 21-man crew working steadily.
Wood product manufacturing employment in Yellowstone County, like the kind done by Thomae, dropped well below 100 workers in the first quarter of 2011, according to the Research and Analysis Bureau of the Montana Department of Labor. By the second quarter of 2013, the sector included more than 100 workers again for the first time since 2010.
Truss work is seasonal, Reid said, because it depends on the ability of contractors to pour concrete foundations and to get a project started. If the concrete doesn’t pour, eventually truss orders slow.
This year, the truss orders have been steady so far. Thomae has six part-time employees hired through Advanced Employment Services. There’s opportunity to become a full-time worker for temps that prove themselves, Reid said. However, skilled workers are scarce in a job market this tight.
“We’ve had guys this year who have never swung a hammer or looked at a tape measurer,” Reid said. “A lot of them are coming out of the service industry.”
At employment agencies, the number of jobs to fill can outnumber people looking for work. Danielle Brazill of Express Employment Services said employers are doing more to land the workers they want.
“I have seen our clients raise pay. I have seen them do that because they really do need the help,” Brazill said. Hourly pay in some cases has increased a dollar.
“Basically, what we’re seeing is, we can’t get enough people to fill the jobs. Everybody is working and usually when people do come in looking for a job, we get them employment pretty quickly. It just depends on someone coming in on the right day. They can be working as early as that night.”
Billings Job Service manager Ryan Van Ballegooyen said he’s receiving a lot of employer requests for wage analysis as companies determine where hourly pay needs to be to attract the workers they want. There are employers looking for available applicants, but there are also employers looking to hire people away from other companies.
Types of Jobs available range from general labor and retail work to manufacturing project management and mental health care.