Yellowstone County employment totaled 79,353 jobs in April — more jobs than any other Montana county. That's not enough.
Employers all over Billings and throughout the county are struggling to fill vacancies in a labor market that has been tight for years. At 2.8%, Yellowstone County's unemployment rate is below the comparable state rate of 3.2% and below the national rate. Although new jobs have been added, Yellowstone had 328 fewer workers in jobs in April than it did a year earlier.
There's a workforce shortage here. Last year, BillingsWorks State of the Workforce report found that the number of expected job openings in the county exceeded the number of people completing their education here by 2,221. That workforce gap includes retirements and economic growth.
Graduation Sunday is a time to celebrate more than 1,200 members of the class of 2019 who will claim high school diplomas today at Billings West, Senior, Skyview and Central commencement ceremonies. We wish the grads well and hope that their future includes staying in or returning to Billings for their careers.
That hometown appeal can't be taken for granted. Billings Public Schools and a growing number of local businesses are creatively reaching out to connect students with potential employers and career mentors.
A great example of this proactive approach is the student job fair at MetraPark last month where more than 700 high school seniors visited with representatives from 100 local businesses. Todd Buchanan, one of the job fair organizers, said contacts made at the job fair have already resulted in job shadows, offers of apprenticeships, full-time and part-time jobs.
Sysco Montana conducted followup interviews with about 20 students who indicated interest in jobs at the MetraPark fair, according to Chris Gomez, Sysco human resources vice president in Billings. Ten of those teens have been hired at very competitive wages, Gomez said. Some wanted summer jobs before going to college, some wanted full time jobs that may lead to careers with the company, he said. All will start work at more than double the state minimum wage.
Gomez said the company is looking for skills such as good attendance, personal accountability and safety consciousness. There's strong competition for local talent, he said.
Discussions about the project that eventually became the job fair started last summer. Buchanan credits Billings Public Schools Superintendent Greg Upham with the idea of bringing hundreds of high school seniors and local employers together. Gomez, Buchanan and other volunteers went to Billings high schools to talk up the job fair. Seniors from all four Billings high schools turned out, along with seniors from Laurel, Huntley and Shepherd.
"This event pointed out for employers that maybe an answer to their workforce challenge is right under their noses," Buchanan said. "As employers in this community, it's on us to reach out, to build an asset of engagement."
Business people who volunteered for the job fair also volunteered to promote the high school operating levy that won voter approval by a 20-point margin on May 7. The jobs event and the levy aim for the same goals.
As Upham said in a Gazette guest opinion before the election: "It is time to shift the paradigm and endorse a new vision, one of encouraging our students to see themselves in a career, engage in workplace opportunities, and support their growth with post-secondary educational opportunities."
Billings needs health care professionals, skilled craftsmen, builders, entrepreneurs, teachers and a host of other talented people to grow our community. All of us share responsibility to help our teens find good paths to college, career or both.
Congratulations, class of 2019. Your hometown cares about you and is ready to help you succeed.