After a sluggish national recovery, Montana’s economy will be back on top again in a few years.
But the worker and the workplace will be markedly different than in pre-recession times, according to Larry Swanson, an economist and director of the University of Montana O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West.
“On the other side of the recession, Montana will have the fastest growth in the country again,” he told about 400 people attending the annual meeting of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In a couple of years, unemployment in Yellowstone County will drop back to 2 percent, meaning companies will be “looking feverishly for someone to fill jobs,” he said.
But tomorrow’s workforce will be stagnant or falling across most of the United States, he said, so older Montanans will have to keep working.
Education will no longer be a one-time deal for young people, but a lifetime habit where workers continue to improve their productivity by “adding skills, adding experience and adding education,” he said.
Overall, economic growth will be achieved one person at a time, he said, like Finland has.
“Finland has the top educational system in the world and one of the top economies in the world,” Swanson said.
The American educational system needs to be completely redesigned, he said, so it is flexible, caters to workers of all ages and produces faster results — degrees of two years or less.
In another decade, the largest age group in Montana’s workplace will be age 62.
“Everybody’s got to step up. It’s got to be everybody,” he said.
Half of the country’s population growth over the past decade came from the Hispanic community, he said, and future workers will, too.
“Virtually all our population growth will be from net migration,” Swanson said.
Population growth has slowed to one percent per year, about half to one-third of the pace seen before the recession.
Billings has advantages over the rest of the country, he said, including ranking among the best cities to start a business and raise a family.
When jobs outnumber workers, employees can live where they want, so a city’s quality of life becomes an important economic draw, he said.
A decade ago, 142,000 people lived within 50 miles of Billings. Now 162,000 people do and that’s an advantage because future growth will flow to the cities, Swanson said.
“Billings is in that category where something it couldn’t do 10 years ago, it will be able to do in five or more years,” he said.
The economic impacts of the regional energy boom and agriculture were mentioned only briefly during Swanson’s keynote speech at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center.
Home construction and sales, the pillar of the last boom, are not coming back to their past glory, Swanson said. And manufacturing jobs also will be declining over the next decade, with fierce competition for those dwindling jobs, he said. That means community leaders need to pursue a handful of other growth industries.
“Just don’t fixate on the needle in the haystack. You’ll miss it,” he said.
Growth in the future will come from heath care, which is at the top of the list, followed by tourism and hospitality, professional and business services, trade and education, he said.
“Billings is at the epicenter of this kind of growth process,” Swanson said.