HELENA – Montana's low unemployment rate is driving up wages, but a serious worker shortage is appearing on the horizon as baby boomers begin to retire, state officials said Monday.
The annual Department of Labor and Industry's Labor Day report shows at least 130,000 baby boomers in the state are expected to retire in the next decade. Nearly 6 percent of Montana's labor force is over 65, with an additional 97,000 workers between the ages of 55 and 64.
Currently, Montana doesn't have enough younger people to fill those jobs, even if every one of them enters the workforce, according to Commissioner of Labor and Industry Pam Bucy.
"It's not about finding the right worker, but finding a worker," Bucy said.
Parts of eastern Montana and some urban areas are already seeing worker shortages. Officials said they expect Montana's low unemployment rate, currently at 4 percent, to drop to levels of 1 to 2 percent within the next 10 years.
"While this undoubtedly does present some challenges, more than that it provides the opportunity and the chance to invest in Montana workers and it drives us to find innovative ways to bridge the gaps that can make it difficult for businesses to find workers with the qualifications that they are looking for," Gov. Steve Bullock said. "We are already taking steps, important steps, on this front."
In what she called an aggressive effort, Bucy's department is partnering with the Montana University System, two-year and tribal colleges and businesses to train workers quickly and reduce the amount of time spent out of the workforce for education.
The focus is on streamlined training and expanded apprenticeship programs in high-demand industries such as health care, energy and manufacturing.
"The state of Montana has been very successful over the last year to train our future workforce through new collaborations," Bucy said.
Other possible solutions include raising the number of hours worked by a high number of Montanans who work less than 35 hours per week, increasing a worker's efficiency through training and technology, and providing more incentives for people to enter the workforce.
Some of those people include American Indians, who face higher unemployment rates on the state's seven reservations. Currently, all have improving unemployment rates, with large drops on the Rocky Boy, Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, according to the report.
State officials began compiling monthly unemployment rates for the reservations this year, which could allow for better economic development decisions in the future.
The state is overall continuing to add jobs, with more than 2,000 per month added in the first six months of 2015. That's on pace with the number of jobs added in the first half of 2014, although uncertainty about oil prices led to a fewer jobs gained during the second half of the year, the report said.